Scores courtesy of the space age Stadium technology will be state-of-art

November 01, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Forget scratchy fight songs booming from a tower of speakers and a black-and-white scoreboard endlessly flickering downs, points and timeouts remaining.

The $220 million Ravens stadium being built downtown is incorporating audio and video technology so cutting-edge that its planners say it will revolutionize the fan experience with animated graphics, multiple replay screens, computer-synchronized speakers -- and perhaps even a Barry Levinson film short.

More than $10 million in specialized electronics will give controllers the ability to re-create the effect of a thundering squadron of jets swooping through the seating bowl, entering at one end zone and exiting at the opposite.

Fans cheering on a late-game drive will take their cues from sound effects so sophisticated they can mimic the roar of a locomotive circling the field, then reproduce with crystal clarity the guitar licks of the Rolling Stones.

"We think this will be the begining of a revolution," said Eli Eisenberg, director of technical systems for the Maryland Stadium Authority, which gave final approval to the scoreboard contract on Thursday.

The boards will be among the biggest in sports -- 100 feet long and 24 feet high -- and the first outdoor screens to use technology perfected only in the past few years.

Operators can, with the stroke of a few computer keys, dedicate the entire board to a high-fidelity video replay, then break the board up into 16 sections showing simultaneous live cuts of games going on around the league or out-of-town score updates.

"We will be the first to install it and the first to use it. We will be trailblazing," said Ravens executive vice president David Modell.

"What we are trying to do, as we are doing generally, is not to accept any of the preconceived notions of how fans have been entertained in the seating bowls," Modell said.

The Ravens have contacted Baltimore-born filmmaker Levinson to tap into his creativity on ways to use the new capabilities.

The key to the video system will be millions of "light-emitting diodes," each the size of a pencil eraser. Each diode contains a pair of silicon electrodes mounted on a sapphire and encased in a plastic shell. When an electrical current is passed between the electrodes, a glow is created. Different hues are created by adding chemicals to the electrodes.

It is the same technology that has for years powered the familiar red glow of alarm clocks and digital watches. But recent advances -- chiefly the creation in Japan of a chemical that makes the silicon electrodes give off a blue glow -- has put red, blue and green LED's at a designer's disposal.

Clustered into "pixels," each LED can have its brightness turned up or down by a computer. The effect, when seen from a distance, is like an electronic pallet mixing paints to create different shades and colors.

SACO says the "SmartVision" boards it is building for the Ravens pTC are capable of reproducing more than 16 million colors. At peak output -- projecting an all-white screen -- each board will consume up to 80,000 watts of power.

"It will be unique and, I think, unlike anything anyone has ever seen," said Fred Jalbout, president of SACO SmartVision Inc. of Montreal, the leader in the new, LED video board technology.

The Ravens' board will be the most important installation yet of the new technology, and SACO negotiated a stiff discount to get the job and show it off to potential customers. The purchase price for the two boards is listed as $8.7 million, but $2.3 million was waived as part of a "sponsorship credit" that came along with a skybox and other goodies. Of the remaining bill, the state will pay $5 million and the team the balance.

Jalbout predicts it will render obsolete better known competitors, such as Sony's JumboTron, Mitsubishi's DiamondVision and Panasonic's Astrovision. Those boards operate on cathode ray tube technology, essentially an integrated network of television or color computer screens. They are costly, heavy and require a lot of electricity. Jalbout says his board will be cheaper to operate, require less maintenance, last longer and create more lifelike pictures.

Competitors aren't so sure. They claim the LED's won't work as well in daylight as CRT boards, and that its reliability is untested. That's why the stadium authority and the Ravens spent months researching the purchase.

"You don't want to be the first with new technology or the last with old technology. We looked into this very carefully," said Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the stadium authority.

Among the tests: several visits to concerts by the rock group U2, whose shows feature the first giant LED board built by SACO, and a special side-by-side comparison this summer at Oriole Park with the Sony JumboTron CRT board and a SmartVision test panel.

"We think this display system is going to rewrite the way people look at in-stadium entertainment," Eisenberg said.

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