4th and pixels

The first-down line you see on TV isn't really there. It's virtual reality

January 24, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

It first appeared on ESPN during a 1998 match-up between the Baltimore Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals. Today, it's everywhere: Dressed in yellow on ABC, ESPN and Fox Sports. Outfitted in orange on CBS.

Football fans call it The Line -- a ruler-straight pastel stripe across the television playing field to show where the next first down lies. Few who've seen it know what it's made of or where it came from (hint: think silicon). But the one thing on which nearly every fan agrees is that it would be tough to imagine a broadcast without it.

"It's awesome," says armchair quarterback Randolph Court in Washington. After all, "the game is all about advancing the ball to that line."

On Sunday The Line will make its Super Bowl debut, cementing its place in the future of broadcast football -- and perhaps opening the door to a whole new world of technological enhancements geared to sports fans.

The people behind the yellow line are John Leland and his crew at Sportvision, which dubs the technology "1st & Ten." (A competitor, Princeton Video Image in Lawrenceville, N.J., creates the orange first-down line for CBS broadcasts and is locked in a patent battle with Sportvision over the technology.)

"The hard part about this is making it look like it's painted on" the field, says Leland, the company's vice president of operations. "So when somebody steps on it, it goes away." The company joke, he says, is that it's done with a hundred little gnomes poised off-camera schlepping buckets of yellow and green paint.

In fact, pulling off this illusion requires eight computers--including four heavy-duty Silicon Graphics workstations similar to the ones George Lucas used to create the special effects in "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace."

Three computers attached to on-field cameras feed tilt, pan and focus information to a production truck outside the stadium, grabbing new readings 30 times a second.

Computers in the truck, meanwhile, use this data to ensure the first-down line appears stationary even as cameras swing to follow the action. At the same time, they also analyze the color of every pixel coming from the cameras to determine whether it's grass, a shoe, a red flag or a 260-pound linebacker.

The result: Players can trot past the line, tumble on it, even cast their shadow across it -- and wherever they do the line disappears as though it were really on the ground. "If you're in a place like Green Bay, where the grass is green and the uniform is green, it can get tricky," says Leland.

Sportvision's success on the gridiron has inspired other entrepreneurs looking to blend silicon and sport.

California startup ScanZ Communication, for instance, is working on a wireless handheld television that fans and referees could carry during a game to record and play back the action -- personal instant replays. "In time we'd also like to give fans the ability to select the camera angle," says CEO David Brein.

Sportvision, meanwhile, is developing products for sports from auto racing to the buttoned-down world of golf.

At the Sony Open in Honolulu this month, the company used Doppler radar to measure how fast pro golfers swing the club as well as the speed and angle of the ball as it leaves the tee -- a rating it dubs the "smash factor."

"It's extreme golf," jokes Sportvision CEO Bill Squadron. Still, "you have to do something not because the technology allows it but because it enhances the game for the fan."

It's a lesson Squadron and his partners at Sportvision learned while working for Fox Television, when the company spent $2 million to transform a black hockey puck into a luminescent blue comet streaking across the ice.

The idea -- dreamed up one evening when a Fox TV exec and his son were watching the glowing light sabers of "Star Wars" -- was to draw new blood to the sport by making it easier to follow shots on the television. As expected, the clueless loved it. But hard-core hockey fans cried foul, and Fox soon benched the technology.

And alienating fans isn't the only potential pitfall companies face in bringing the digital world to the sports world.

Princeton Video Image, for example, found itself in the middle of a spat last week over its hot new technology: virtual ads. These are computer-generated advertisements placed on the television screen behind a batter or on the soccer field that look so real it's hard to tell they're not really there.

"The real estate in sports arenas that's on TV is worth a lot of money," says Sam McCleery, vice president of business development at PVI.

The benefit of virtual ads, says McCleery, is they can be customized to specific audiences. When the San Diego Padres play the Philadelphia Phillies, for example, fans in Philadelphia might see a Bell Atlantic logo behind home plate. For San Diego viewers, the same spot might contain an ad for the San Diego Zoo.

Although the technology is fast gaining popularity among broadcasters, it raised eyebrows this month after CBS acknowledged it had digitally superimposed its logo over the shoulder of Dan Rather as he broadcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve, obscuring the true owner of that Times Square real estate: the NBC peacock.

Some wonder whether the dust-up has implications in the sports world and whether sports viewers will always be able to trust everything they're seeing on the field.

"What's next?" joked sports columnist Michael Weinreb recently in the Akron Beacon Journal. "Virtual fans?"

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