Innovation

Why watching Super Bowl LI at home will be even more awesome than usual

Jan 7, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; A countdown to Super Bowl LI scrolls outside of NRG Stadium before the AFC Wild Card playoff football game between the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders. (Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

Jan 7, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; A countdown to Super Bowl LI scrolls outside of NRG Stadium before the AFC Wild Card playoff football game between the Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders. (Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)  (USA Today Sports)

Nothing is as exciting as actually being at the Super Bowl, but this year those of us watching from home will get to see something those at the game will miss: a view from inside the players' helmets.

In fact, Super Bowl LI is shaping up to be one of the most technologically advanced games ever aired. The Fox Sports broadcast will include 4K and even 8K cameras, augmented reality, and next-gen graphics and stats, all designed to bring fans at home closer to the field.

"With the NFL and most other sports, we're used to seeing replays and on-field action being broadcast from the outside in. But the ambition has always been to get those perspectives from the inside out," says Michael Davies, senior vice president of field and technical operations at Fox Sports. "With 'Be the Player' and some other enhancements we're utilizing this year, such as pylon cameras, we'll be able to bring the audience down to the field and offer the viewpoint of a player at the critical decision-making moment.”

Super Bowl, Super Tech

Perhaps the most touted of the watch-at-home enhancements will be the "Be the Player" feature, an Intel technology that allows the viewer "to get inside the helmet of any player on the field,” according to Davies.

There are no actual recording devices inside the helmets. Instead, an array of 38 Ultra High Definition cameras placed around the perimeter of the field will capture a 360-degree view of the action. That allows producers to position a "virtual" camera almost anywhere on the field to replicate an individual player's perspective. The video feed runs through 5 miles of fiber-optic cables to a special control room where Intel and Fox Sports producers choose and compile the Be the Player replays.

You can get an idea of how the technology works in this video clip.

The "spin and zoom" 3D technology behind Be the Player, called Relay 360, has been used in some sporting events, including the MLB and NBA All-Star games. But Super Bowl LI marks the first time the tech will be used to show the action from the player's field-level perspective. Intel acquired the technology, then called "freeD," when it bought the company Replay Technologies last year.

According to Davies, Fox Sports will use the Be the Player technology selectively throughout Super Bowl LI, typically on the biggest plays of the game. One reason for that is the complexity of composing and compiling the shots that air. Each 15- to 30-second clip eats up around 1 terabyte of data, so it can take up to 2 minutes to get the replays ready for broadcast. So most of the Be the Player replays will air after the commercial break following a score or a timeout.

"We also need to make sure the clips fit with the story line," Davies explains. "We want to make sure that we have the right shot and that it can be seamlessly woven into the broadcast."

Fox Sports will be using several other novel technologies during the game. For example, the overhead Skycam—the robotic camera you often see suspended by wires during NFL broadcasts—will now be teamed with enhanced, augmented reality cameras to insert a live first-down line on the field, so fans at the game will see what the fans at home have seen for a while. 

Player-tracking technology, from a company called Zebra Sports Solution, will be used to produce creative graphics of real-time stats. The technology, in use for several years now, employs wireless RFID sensors in players' shoulder pads to track several metrics, including location, speed, acceleration, and distance traveled. Fox will present the easy-to-digest info on colorful 3D-style billboards during the game.

4K Cameras but No 4K Broadcast

Broadcasters have been using 4K cameras for slow-motion replays for several years now, but Fox will use more of them than ever before. But although much of the game will be shot in the higher-resolution format, the Super Bowl won't be shown in 4K, surely a disappointment to those who now own 4K TVs. (So far, live 4K broadcast content has been limited in the U.S., mainly to live sporting events on Direct TV.)

This year's game, however, will mark the first time that some of the on-field Super Bowl action will also be shot using a higher resolution 8K camera. Fox plans to use several 4K cameras that can record at faster-than-normal frame rates, too. The 4K and 8K cameras offer razor-sharp, highly detailed images, and the higher frame rates help reduce motion blur during fast-moving scenes. That makes the super slow-motion replays look better, even when broadcast in regular HD.

Despite the fact that the game won't be shown in 4K, Davies says the advantages of Ultra HD cameras and faster frame rates will be apparent. "The ability to capture a quarterback's reaction to an evolving situation on the field, or the grimace of a sideline coach after a call, can heighten the emotional impact of the game for viewers," he explains. "It's always best to start with the highest-quality source material you can get."

In total, Fox Sports will use 70 cameras during Super Bowl LI, including more Super Motion and 4K cameras then ever before in a Big Game. The 24 cameras installed in the end-zone pylons will be able to capture high-quality video at the goal line, enabling fans—and the refs—to see whether a player has scored on an especially close play.

The Super Bowl will take place Feb. 5, but if you can't wait, the pregame action kicks off Jan. 27 with Super Bowl Live, a 10-day free festival at Discover Green, a 12-acre public park in downtown Houston. The event, which features music, food, games, and live performances, will also be a showcase for technology. Fox Sports will have 36 high-def cameras, including a Skycam suspended over the park, plus dozens of microphones capturing all the action.

That still leaves the question, though, of when we can expect to see a 4K broadcast of the game. "That day is coming. Most of the cameras are 4K-capable," Davies says. "But not this year."

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