It started over drinks and a sketch on a napkin. Don’t all great ideas?
It was New Year’s Eve 2011 when Israeli expats Oren Haimovitch-Yogev and brothers Aviv and Matteo Shapira decided to spend their lunch break at a pub in London watching a Manchester United match. All three were engineers and developers in the military-drone business, working for Britain’s UAV Tactical Systems.
The tenor at the table changed when Aviv made an innocent comment: “I want to see what the game looks like from the perspective of the ball.” Replay Technologies was born.
Since that meeting less than two years ago, the startup’s new freeD product has become the talk of the sports-production industry in the U.S. The 24-camera, 360-degree, real-time replay system has been called by Fred Gaudelli, highly respected producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football, the most innovative technology to hit sports television since the 1st and Ten line. A method of replay that seems to instantly connect with a generation of NFL fans who grew up playing football on their videogame platforms.
This Sunday, millions of viewers will be treated to a whole new way of watching football when freeD — or, as NBC brands it on its broadcasts, NBCeeIT360 — will be available to the production crew in Arlington, TX, when the Dallas Cowboys host the Washington Redskins on Sunday Night Football.
“We are just beginning to utilize it and look at things differently,” says Ken Goss, SVP, remote operations and production planning, at NBC Sports. “You want to pick specific plays that will enhance your broadcast, and that has been Fred’s goal all along. We can fly all around from different angles while still maintaining perspective. You pick specific plays, and, when you can move around in that 360-degree motion, it creates an entirely new dynamic in the game.”
But how does it work?
“It’s not selecting a camera; it’s building a camera,” says Aviv Shapira, who serves the chief of operations and programs for Replay Technologies. “We’re actually building a camera that is essentially the size of the field.”
The Dallas Cowboys, NBC Sports, and Replay Technologies made a commitment to the technology over the summer when a deal was struck to install the freeD Arena System infrastructure inside AT&T Stadium, the first 360-degree deployment of the technology.
Twenty-four 4K (12-megapixel) cameras, designed by Canadian digital-imaging developer Teledyne Dalsa with Nikon lenses, are installed in a complete circle around the stadium. Each camera is fed to the server room via single-mode fiber. It takes direct links to each camera — about 2,000 total feet of fiber — to connect them to the server, where they are synched and recorded. In the server room, the fiber data is translated back to Replay Technologies’ own protocol via KVM extenders developed by Thinklogical.
“These cameras create a 3D atmosphere,” says Haimovitch-Yogev, a co-founder who serves as the company’s CEO. “You don’t have to have a camera right in front of the scene. So we can have multiple angles and endless choices, and we can run the same scene in different ways.”
As a result, freeD also offers a unique way for fans to view controversial calls, creating a 3D effect and depth of field on a 2D plane.
“In conventional replays, we’re looking for ‘was he in bounds or out of bounds,’ ‘was he safe or was he not safe?’” says Jack Kestenbaum, director, technical operations, YES Network, which branded the system YES View when the network used the technology during Yankees telecasts this past season. “Consistently, they’ll say ‘well, the angle. Change the angle.’ By changing the angle, you can see whether he was in or out. When this is done correctly and if there’s enough infrastructure in place, this technology gives you 360 degrees.”On Sunday night, a crew of three will be stationed in an office trailer in the production compound that the Replay Technologies team has essentially turned into a makeshift TV truck. Split into three sections, the trailer houses the server room, an office, and an operations area, where the pilot, navigator, and an NBC Sports representative will execute the technology.
The pilot operates the systems, making all creative decisions as to what path the replay will take when played back and making any necessary pixel corrections. The navigator is on-site to handle the more technological aspects, such as color correction and lighting, which become a major factor during day games, with constantly changing shadows and sunlight. The NBC associate producer is there to relay messages into the ear of Gaudelli when a shot is ready for playback. To build and render a replay takes about a minute.
“The producer has to make creative decisions while understanding the game,” says Aviv Shapira. “It’s like flying around a camera with a joy stick. It’s much more advanced, and it takes us about a minute to build the shot.”
In addition to TV, the Cowboys are using freeD during all home games on their massive in-venue video screen.
“The freeD people have been great to work with,” says Dwin Towell, director of broadcast engineering for the Dallas Cowboys. “We were all facing a very tight timeline to make this technology happen, and everything fell into place like clockwork. Even though, many times, coordination took place across two continents, the end result is spectacular.”
The system’s use in football is the first full realization of the concept devised in that London pub. Just four months after developing the idea, Haimovitch-Yogev and the Shapiras were meeting with Olympic Broadcasting Services, where they quickly landed a dream deal to get their technology featured on the London Olympic Games. There, freeD’s Solo System was set up at the vault for men’s and women’s gymnastics but was deployed to create only a 180-degree environment.
Last fall, the Replay Technologies team rode their new-found success into a meeting with Ed Delaney and the team at YES Network, who loved what they saw and gave the green light on installing a nine-camera system at Yankee Stadium.
The cameras (which were 2K-capable, not 4K-capable) were installed in an arc along the back of the lower deck along the first-base side, extending just into right field. That helped create a 90-degree environment that YES Network director John Moore would call upon for first-of-its-kind looks at home-run swings and close plays at home and first base.
“What we have here, as far as I’m concerned, is the definitive tool for replay for virtually any sport in this country,” says Kestenbaum. “It’s just unbelievable.”
With Replay Technologies now finding success on Sunday Night Football — the most-watched program on television — many think this is just the beginning for freeD.
“I think the goal is to expand upon this … for multiple stadiums,” says Goss. “People will need to put the money into the necessary infrastructure and the amount of plays you get [to use freeD for] will vary. But, as things become more affordable and easier to install, possibly down the road, there has been talk of us eventually being able to extract the data from broadcast cameras. This technology is already starting to evolve.”
According to Haimovitch-Yogev, freeD is adding more and more clients. The system is expected to be deployed with Major League Soccer and could appear at the Dunk Contest during NBA’s All-Star festivities in New Orleans. Conversations are also on-going with Host Broadcast Services to land a spot on the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and Turner will likely use the system at the Final Four, which just so happens to be taking place at AT&T Stadium.
The Replay Technologies team is maintaining perspective, though. They know their technology is still relatively young and has some growing to do. Haimovitch-Yogev couldn’t be more excited for what’s to come.
“The quality of the picture will be better, the area will be greater, and the delivery time will be shorter,” he says. “The future is very bright.”
Jason Dachman contributed to this report.