CBS Sports eyes Final Four

EyeVision gets second trial in NCAA basketball coverage

CBS Sports will use its EyeVision technology during NCAA Final Four coverage. EyeVision, first used at this year's Super Bowl in Tampa Bay, Fla., was inspired by the special effects of the feature film The Matrix, potentially providing a 360-degree view of a still replay image.

At the Super Bowl, the effect-used sparingly during the game and once during the half-time show-required 30 cameras on robotic heads spaced approximately 6 degrees apart around the stadium. During the network's Final Four coverage March 30-April 1 in Minneapolis, 30 cameras will be used to create a "slightly less than" 360-degree view. (In Tampa, approximately 270 degrees was achieved, according to those present.)

The Metrodome is a little more difficult because of its large size, according to Ken Aagaard, senior vice president, operations and production services, for CBS. "The NCAA has closed off part of the arena with a huge drape, and we really don't have enough cameras to cover the complete dome. So we're going to go about 250 degrees, with the cameras at every 6 degrees on columns that are high up in the dome. It's going to give us a little steeper angle, and we're not sure exactly what this will mean. In addition, we're looking at a smaller field of play, so, in some ways, it's going to restrict us more than we were" at the Super Bowl.

"That's the bad news," Aagaard continues. "The good news is that it's going to allow us to focus on areas like the free-throw line, mid-court and the basket, so calibrating the cameras will, hopefully, be a bit easier for us to do. Remember, it's just our second show" using EyeVision; "we're still learning as we go."

The fact that CBS is "experimenting" with the technology on-air during two of its most important telecasts says a lot about Aagaard's belief in the technology's potential. "This is the only way to develop the technology," he says. "It's not like you can go out and practice, because it's too expensive to do. We made a conscious decision that we were going to try it, and we've stuck to our plan."

Virtually the same system used in Tampa will be used in Minneapolis. A separate server channel records each camera's output, allowing an operator to freeze a replay and cut between Doremi Labs' multiple digital-disk recorders. This provides the capability to rotate the viewer perspective around a still image of play before resuming action.

Inside a CBS production truck parked outside the stadium, a single camera operator controls one of the robotic units while the other 29 cameras automatically synchronize their corresponding angles, via sophisticated software algorithms.

Everything moves in unison, to create the 360-degree effect. Several BUF Technology remote devices control a Sierra Video Systems serial-digital-video router to select the "master" camera used for focusing on a particular play.

The operator chooses additional cameras for shading-filling in the view-using custom software provided by The Field Shop.

A few minor "tweaks" to the system since Tampa, according to Aagaard, include increased power and the installation of faster processing chips. The staff will also have less time to set up the system, about seven days instead of the two weeks they needed the first time around.

"We're going to stay the course, based on what we started with the Super Bowl," he said. "We do see making some improvements to the 'tweening' software" to make the playback look smoother, "but we don't know when it will be done."

Future events on Aagaard's schedule could include a soccer tournament in Milan, Italy (the entire system will be shipped in packing crates) at the end of May or the Stanley Cup Finals on ESPN.

There's little doubt that, as with the virtual first-down marker used in televising football games, the EyeVision effect will eventually begin to show up on other networks because the system is only partly owned by CBS (in fact, it owns only a minority stake). In a deal announced in January, The Revolution Co., a joint venture of Princeton Video Image and Core Digital Technologies, owns the licensing rights and will operate the system in the future.

In fact, although CBS developed the concept for EyeVision, Core Digital will provide the personnel to operate the system for any network or foreign broadcaster that wants to use it, while PVI continues to improve the software. PVI also supplies the virtual first-down marker to CBS NFL telecasts.

"The system is ready for anybody to use," Aagaard says. "PVI and Core Digital technologies are very good strategic partners: Core Digital stores and archives video digitally, which is great for EyeVision because now we have a way to keep all of this material and repurpose it. With its expertise, PVI is a very good partner technically for us as well."

The eventual plan is to install EyeVision systems permanently in stadiums and arenas across the country; according to Aagaard, the company is currently in negotiations with several.

"Right now, there's only one system, and it will be that way for a while," he says. "We have to figure out how to make the [next generation of systems] cheaper and more flexible. All of that will come with time."