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New technologies of Super Bowl 51: Cameras expected to elevate FOX's broadcast

Advanced cameras strategically placed in the rafters of NRG Stadium in Houston will add a completely new element to FOX's broadcast of Super Bowl LI.

There’s no doubt about it—these days, watching the Super Bowl on television beats being there. Sure, dropping $2,500 on a ticket for the sake of being able to say I was there might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but fans tuning in from home on Feb. 5 might be treated to a far richer experience than those on the ground.

This shift happened when the yellow first-down line debuted on our screens in 1998. Almost two decades later, in a world is augmented by technology that puts almost anything at our fingertips whenever we want it, there is still no first-down line at an actual game—except perhaps on the Jumbotron. But no one goes to the Super Bowl just to watch a TV, even a really big one.

The biggest upgrade to the FOX broadcast feed this year comes courtesy of Intel. The Silicon-Valley tech company aims to provide as many as two dozen player’s eye view clips from the game, a feature called “Be the Player.” The feature, based on its 360 Replay technology, models the real world so that virtual views from any location can be generated.

“Now you are able to do something that fans have always wanted to do,” says Jeff Hopper, general manager of strategy and marketing for the Intel Sports Group. “We’ll be able to position this virtual camera view in a way where it looks like you’re seeing what the player saw.”

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Intel has installed 38 5K cameras high above the field at NRG Stadium in Houston, bolted onto the building’s metal structure. Pointed downwards, these cameras operate more like sensors, feeding visual data back to a rack of servers elsewhere inside the stadium. Working together, those servers can digitally reconstruct the 3D world of the game, representing real objects using 3D pixels, known as voxels. To reduce the data processing load—around one terabyte for a 15 to 30 second clip—during a game many of the features inside the stadium, including the field itself, are pre-rendered by the servers. Only moving objects like the players need to be added in real time.

When FOX sends a request—perhaps for a quarterback’s view from the pocket during a crucial play, or a linebacker’s view from the other side of the ball—two Intel staffers will take over. The system’s pilot will operate a virtual camera, choosing where and when to position the viewpoint in the 3D reconstruction. The navigator will package the visual feed from the pilot into a clip that can be relayed back to FOX. The whole process will take a couple of minutes, so don’t expect instant replays yet.

This year the system will be used to show fans what players see, but ultimately any viewpoint is possible. “Any player or referee on the field, you can have that view,” Hopper says. The league is unlikely to ever want to let fans see what officials see, because that would only fuel controversies over questionable calls, but Intel 360 Replay could eventually be used to help get decisions right.

“The technology is actually very well suited to official review,” Hopper says. “I think over time we’ll see it being used more and more for official reviews.” Taking over the role of the pilot, an official could don a virtual reality headset and re-run a play from multiple angles to determine exactly what happened.

And Hopper expects that eventually the short clips we’ll see at Super Bowl LI to expand, and that fans at home might also be able to take control of the virtual camera themselves. “In a few years it’ll be real time, it’ll be certainly full game, and it will fundamentally change how fans engage in sports content,” he says. “There will be a Super Bowl someday in the future were it’s being captured in this new media format and millions of fans all over the world will be able to run their own virtual camera, and see the plays and the field and the action from any angle, any way they want to.”

When that day arrives, will anyone want to deal with the cost, the travel and the inconvenience of seeing the action in real life?