Size matters

Armed only with a remote control, it is now possible for viewers to run alongside athletes, get a driver’s-eye view of a grand prix, be placed inside the cricket stumps during a test match and relive every last moment in super-slow motion. ITP.net investigates the evolution in sports camera technology.

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By  Marcus Webb Published  July 24, 2002

Introduction|~||~||~|Advances in camera technology are testing the creativity of broadcasters and producers alike in the ongoing search for the most extreme and innovative sports programming. Today's cutting edge cameras allow viewers to feel almost like a participant in an event, albeit a participant with a slice of pizza in one hand and a cup of tea in the other.

"Directors are always looking for another angle," explains Fred Clow, director - operations/outside broadcast at the Dubai-based channel Ten Sports. "We are always on the lookout for another shot, something to make our programme unique, to distinguish it from the clutter of other shows that are out there."

The Holy Grail for broadcasters is to provide the viewer with the most vicarious experience possible. However, TV audiences are coming to expect these types of mini-camera and slow-motion shots as part of a normal sports presentation. Understandably, the broadcasters are feeling the pressure of continuously having to re-invent their programmes and look longingly at technology to provide new solutions.

The most dramatic advance in sports coverage has been the increasing use of minute micro-cams to take the viewers onto the pitch and into the action. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that there is a direct correlation between this reduction in size and the number of miniature cameras currently being utilised in sports television. There are more cameras per event than ever before creating opportunities for more use of video in alternative replay angles and slow motion. A camera measuring only 22mm x 22mm x 86mm and weighing in at only 80 grammes can provide previously unseen shots and give that unique extra dimension. Producers have been quick to see the benefits of offering these views in their traditional packages as well as providing a platform to revolutionise previously less media-friendly events.

Howzat!

The use of micro cameras for sports broadcasts first came to prominence with the introduction of stump cams in the early nineties. These minute Hitachi KP-D8 cameras were adapted by the staff of BBC Special Facilities and placed in the middle wicket during a match. The stump cam is widely credited with revolutionising cricket coverage and reviving interest in the sport.

Dave Gooding, of BBC Special Facilities, was instrumental in installing the initial stump cams for the 1993 Ashes series in England. "It was a very exciting time," he remembers, "we actually began to install the cameras and cabling in 1991, which displays an impressive amount of forward thinking in the broadcast world." The success of these early stump cams led to further cameras being installed for the World Cup and now they are an integral part of nearly every cricket broadcast.

Images from stump cams featured heavily in Ten Sports’ coverage of this year’s Sharjah Tournament, on which both Clow and Gooding worked. "We are trying to advance the coverage of the Sharjah Tournament in any way we can," says Clow. "This year we put two cameras in each end, a wide angle lens and a narrow angle lens. The director can then choose from those four views," explains Clow.
Wicket cams are expected to be used in two upcoming tournaments to be shown on Ten Sports: September's Morocco tournament, for which the channel is producing all the coverage; and July's Sri Lanka tournament, which Ten Sports is co-producing with the Rupavahini Corporation, Sri Lanka's national broadcaster.

"With the use of micro cameras it is best to keep it simple," explains Gooding. "We actually have a panning stump cam now but I do not like using it, how much more can you see? You cannot follow a fast bowl via remote panning and the extra technology means that the camera is more likely to be damaged by a speeding ball."

The desire to ‘keep it simple’ means that the majority of stump cams transmit their signal via cable rather than radio or microwave links. "Whilst some of the cameras do transmit via radio," says Gooding, "these funny little men in white pyjamas keep getting in the way of the signal and breaking transmission. It makes far more sense to run a cable beneath the pitch to the stump and transmit the signal via that. We have run cables beneath most of the professional pitches in England. The Sharjah stadium is cabled in such a way."

As for the future of cricket cameras, Gooding believes cricket has gone as far as it can go. "I honestly can't see anywhere else to put a camera that would enhance the footage," he says. "There is talk of placing a camera inside a bat, but a bat is never still; the batsman is flinging it about all over the place so you would never get a decent shot. Durability is also a factor, a bat-cam would have to take an awful amount of punishment and I honestly can't see them surviving."

There was also speculation of placing cameras inside a player's helmet, but again Gooding can see little advantage. "What would you actually gain?" he asks. "If you watch a batsman he spends most of the time looking at his feet and only looks up as the ball is approaching. You would see very little." Clow agrees, "In cricket, short of putting a camera in the ground looking up, we've pretty much got every angle covered."

And what of the danger of people stealing these highly valuable pieces of equipment along with the stumps as match souvenirs? "Well, we cunningly replace the stumps for plane wooden ones before the last over," Gooding reveals. "Having said that we do have the occasional ones go missing and they turn up in the most unlikely of places; we recently had one handed in to a police station in India."

In addition to the now legendary stump camera, BBC Outside Broadcasts Special Facilities has received particular praise for its ‘slalom gate’ camera used at the World Skiing Championships in St.Anton in Austria. The producer wanted something that had never been achieved before, and the BBC chose the Hitachi KP-D8 primarily because the camera’s unique profile was ideal for the project’s size constraints. "Basically," says Gooding, "it was a big stump cam and it worked perfectly."

UK microwave experts Total World Sports are currently developing a ski jump unit based around the KP-D8 colour camera. The device will strap to the jumper’s leg and transmit live pictures via a short range microwave device. "The size and performance of the camera gave us an opportunity to give the viewers a much better sense of the speed and dedication required for this event,” says Total World Sports’ Anthony Woolhouse.

The need for speed

Some events lend themselves more readily to miniature camera use, with motor sport benefiting a great deal from advances in micro camera technology. By securing cameras to Formula One racecars, broadcasters have been able to allow viewers to experience screaming around tracks at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour.

Audiences can now share every shock and vibration alongside the driver whilst minuscule microphones provide the soundtrack of squealing breaks and revving engines.

"It is now standard issue to have camera slots fitted into every single F1 car and if a camera is not fitted they add a weight so that every car is equal," explains Clow. "These shots are amazing, they give you indications of speed that weren't imaginable before."
When securing a camera to a race car with a 600 bhp engine, shock and vibration are much more than a minor problem. To provide broadcast quality footage the cameras must be resistant to the bumps of the road.

John Porter, of Broadcast Sports Technology, uses Sorbothane, a viscoelastic material to attenuate the vibration caused by the track. "Sorbothane's high damping material made the difference. Their engineering services and ability to react quickly and economically to small volume customer prototypes was pivotal in the successful design of off- board camera technology," says Porter.

The Sorbothane isolator absorbs forces in the axial and lateral direction, which enables the camera to focus at speeds greater than 180 mph. When a car is travelling at these kinds of speeds, one can imagine that shock is not the only problem, so is vibration. Normally, engineers cannot design a system to both isolate vibration and absorb shock. With Sorbothane, a designer can achieve both.
Sorbothane, and its high damping ratio, gives design engineers the ability to isolate shock and vibration in the same application. The material actually moves transient energy perpendicularly away from the location of impact or vibration. It is effectively used in applications from circuit board isolation grommets to shipping pallet bumpers.

The early micro-cams also suffered from grease and dirt marking the camera lens during the race. Developers came up with an ingenious solution to ensure that broadcasters continued to receive top quality pictures despite marks on the lenses. "Cameras are now fitted with roll away lens covers," explains Clow. "So that when the lens gets covered in dirt, you can just roll the old lens away to maintain a clean shot."

The World Rally Championships employ approximately 35 on-board cameras in addition to 50 track-bound cameras including the ‘puddle-cam’ which is buried in the road near jumps and produces stunning footage. Specialist camera providers Eastern Video have many years’ experience on the rally circuit and currently use a combination of single and three CCD cameras. Managing director Jonathan Thursby says, "The long-term aim is to increase the number and types of cameras we can run in each car, but this is very much dependent on size and weight issues".

Extreme angles

Broadcasters who are not fortunate enough to carry high-profile sports content have to think carefully about to how to enhance their productions with clever and fresh ideas.

Extreme and minority sports channels have become synonymous with inventive coverage, and in some respect this mirrors the intense action portrayed on the screen.

Miniaturisation does not only benefit single-chip cameras, the more advanced three-chip products which provide broadcast quality 800TVL pictures are getting in on the act as well. The majority of current three CCD technologies utilise a remote camera control unit (CCU), which controls set-up and functions, linked to the head via a cable. At approximately 710g, a CCU presents further weight and storage problems. One solution to this problem is the Hitachi HV-D30. At 65mm x 65mm x 80mm its compact profile without separate CCU gives the producers an opportunity to upgrade picture quality and colour performance without space restrictions becoming a major issue. Fundamental developments like this allow the producers to flex their creative muscle.

But it is not only on-board footage that benefits from miniature camera use. Producers and broadcasters are able to deliver specialist shots, particularly tracking views, with smaller-sized units as opposed to regulation electronic news gathering (ENG) style cameras.
BBC Outside Broadcasts Special Facilities is working on an underwater turn camera to cover swimming at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester this month. Paul McNeil welcomes the advent of the CCU-less HV-D30 camera. "This is a big step forward for us, to achieve this type of shot previously we had to use a larger camera, of course this would mean a larger overall unit". He adds, "unit cost and manoeuvrability are also important factors to be considered".

UK-based company Polecam has taken track-bound miniature camera usage to another level with its lightweight portable jib-arm. The portability aspect allows it to get into areas where safety concerns would have prohibited larger cranes from operating. Polecam decided to use high performance Hitachi three CCD cameras to ensure their unique access isn't degraded by poor quality results. Polecam's sales and marketing manager, Sharon Moore, says "producers and directors are constantly looking to us to provide them with new and dynamic shots, and the secret of our success is its simple mobility. We can provide shots a single fixed camera wouldn't be capable of".

Stunning Slo-Mo

It is not just the use of micro-cameras that is quickening the pulse of avid sports viewers. Super-slow motion cameras now provide the smooth arty shots that make two players shaking hands look like a scene from a French art house movie. In film, it's very easy to make slow-motion effects by running film through a camera at greater than the usual 24 or 25 frames per second (fps). In video, it used to be impossible to increase the frame rate above that of the system, that is 25 or 30 fps, except for specialised applications.

The arrival of high-speed VTRs and CCD pickup devices in cameras has enabled higher frame rate combinations at playback rates of 25 fps, which offers a new way to view the action.

The problem with slo-mo playback of material shot at normal frame rates is that a lot of information is 'missing.' At 25 fps, a lot can happen between one frame and the next.

Turning the shutter speed up on the camera can help reduce blur as the motion on each frame is 'frozen' in exactly the same way that a high shutter speed on a still camera freezes the action. But you've still got missing information between the frames. By far the best way to analyse fast motion is to shoot at a higher than normal rate. To that end, the Thomson Grass Valley LDK 23HS MkII shoots at 75 frames per second (PAL) and 90 frames per second (NTSC). Or to put it another way, three times normal. This gives fast motion less time to 'blur' and delivers three times the information that a normal camera would. When shown at slo-mo speeds, footage from the LDK 23HS MkII is very impressive. Gone is the blur and the replayed motion is much smoother than usual. The camera can interface to high-speed (Super Motion) Betacam recorders and most disk-based slo-mo systems.
It also features standard rate output that works simultaneously with this high-speed output; you do not need to double up a camera position just for adding super slo-mo.

The LDK 23HS MkII camera is based on the LDK 23 and features the same 1000-pixel wide DPM (Dynamic Pixel Management) CCD sensor. This type of sensor does not reduce horizontal resolution in wide screen mode (like some other sensors). The camera looks, feels and operates just like the standard LDK 23, meaning no extra operator training. The high bandwidth signals get back to the base station on a super wideband triax link, but still uses industry-standard cable.

One of the key new features of the LDK 23HS MkII is enhanced indoor performance. While shooting at greater than normal frame rates can reduce camera sensitivity, the LDK 23HS MkII has a large variety of optimised pre-set settings to accommodate numerous lighting situations in both studio and stadia. In fact, the camera is designed very much with sports in mind, offering a five-channel intercom and a high quality stereo audio circuit.

Small is beautiful

Camera technology has ramifications for the federations and governing bodies striving to propel their sports into the big leagues. Let us not forget that they are sports first and foremost, but these less intrusive cameras ease the way to achieving both sporting and commercial objectives.

The development of digital signal processing is a quantum leap forward, both in single and three CCD cameras. Traditionally, it had been acceptable for the on-screen action to outweigh the picture quality, however this is no longer the case since broadcaster's expect radical footage coupled with increased quality. But resolution is not the only factor affected by these developments. Colour correction, or put more simply the ability to change primary and secondary colours independently of each other, allows the producer to achieve more realistic images. Full broadcast functions and set-ups are now available without the cost and transportability issues associated with higher-priced ENG cameras.

One of the most difficult shots to produce effectively is the POV (point of view) shot through the windscreen of a car. The problem of exposing two areas can be resolved by Hitachi's range of three-chip cameras which use their ALC (automatic light control) to define the area to be exposed in conjunction with a master black setting which allows for a more balanced picture.

So what does the future hold for miniature cameras? Most certainly the growth of interactive television and web casting provide untapped opportunities for increased numbers of cameras and more diverse angles.

The success of Sky's ‘player-cam’ has tempted the viewer with more individually, tailored programming, and now many other sports are looking to become part of the interactive revolution. Whatever future developments are around the corner, it is clear that the real winners in this technological race will be the world's armchair athletes.
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