Sportvision is an Emmy-winning company that pioneered the use of navigation technologies to enhance the viewing experience of sports, initially on television and now through several electronic media. With the increasing ability of fans to watch broadcasts — or use more specialized interactive products — wherever they are, Sportvision has arguably transformed even the experience of attending live games. The company currently partners with the NFL, Major League Baseball, NASCAR, the Olympic Games, the PGA, the NBA, the NCAA and many other sports organizations.
The success of Sportvision has hinged on solving two technological problems. The first involves locating or tracking a target in real space and (crucially for live events) in real time. The second involves superimposing graphics onto that target — taking into account not only its movement, but that of the television cameras (whose lenses additionally introduce distortions). Moreover, the system has to work with several cameras simultaneously.
Success, however, has not come from technical mastery alone. It has also depended on winning the allegiance of fans by showing them useful information without creating undo visual clutter and, perhaps more crucially, without insulting their viewing ability. The necessary juggling of technology and marketing is demonstrated by Sportvision’s early products, the first of which preceded its existence as an independent company.
Fox Television introduced the FoxTrax puck tracking system in 1996 at the All-Star game. Fox, which was owned by NewsCorp, had just won the rights to broadcast National Hockey League games and was determined to expand the audience for televised ice hockey in the United States, which at the time was relatively small compared to the other professional sports. Fox looked to bold innovation as way to draw new viewers to hockey. Fox’s idea was to track the very small hockey puck, which often moved at speeds even too fast for the video cameras to record, and then color-enhance the puck so that views could always follow it real-time. As the puck travelled through the air, its motion was shown as a blue streak. When the puck went faster than 70 mph, the streak became red. To accomplish this feat, the engineering team pushed the technology of the day to its limits.
Stan Honey, who led the project, put together a team of former colleagues from the Stanford Research Institute and in-car navigation company, Etak, to develop the puck tracking technology. After $2 million, one year of intense technical development, and a lot of uncertainty, the puck tracking system was ready for the All-Star game in the Boston arena. The promos announcing FoxTrax were over the top, promising the “greatest technological breakthrough in the history of sports” for the All-Star game
The FoxTrax puck tracking innovation was a technological tour-de-force that stirred up considerable controversy. The graphic was popular with some viewers, but was also widely ridiculed by hockey purists. Canadians, in particular, saw it as evidence of American unfamiliarity with the game. Fox loved the publicity. The All-Star game in 1996 produced the highest ratings ever for an All-Star game. The technology was used for 3 hockey seasons, and was only dropped when ESPN won the broadcast rights to NHL hockey.
Football: 1st and Ten
1st and Ten is a system — introduced on ESPN in 1998, the year Stan Honey left Fox to become a founder of Sportvision — that paints a virtual yellow line on a football field to indicate the first-down line. Because the target in this case is stationery, its position can be calculated using only the television cameras. The unique topography of each football field and the curvature created by sharp-focus lenses make it a challenge, however, to paint a virtual line that appears flush to the field and parallel to the actual yard lines. Eschewing the in-your-face approach of Murdoch, Sportvision succeeded in creating a graphic with nonintrusive subtlety — it even disappears when “covered” by mud — that increases the ability of even practiced viewers to follow the progress of the game. Beginning with the 1998 Super Bowl, the technology has gradually extended to nearly all professional and college games.
RACEf/x, introduced by Sportvision and NASCAR in 2001, further advanced Sportvision’s formula of providing a wealth of information, useful to experienced fans and novice viewers alike, in a clean graphic format. The difficulty of discerning the leader on a circular track offered the opportunity to win over fans simply by highlighting the car in front. In addition, a “virtual dashboard” — overlaid onto a shot taken from inside a car’s front windshield — indicates such things as throttle, braking, fuel flow and RPM. Multiple technical problems had to be overcome, however. Because racetrack conditions (including fencing that covers half the sky) interferes with GPS sensors, the units bolted into each car are designed to locate the car using two satellites, and sometimes only one, rather than the usual four. The optical illusion of boxes floating over specific cars faced challenges similar to that of 1st and Ten — with an even longer zoom length — in addition to the tendency of the cameras to bounce as they tilt and pan.
List of Patents (Fox Sports & Sportvision)
Electromagnetic transmitting hockey puck (Patent) (1995: Fox Sports Productions, Inc.)
Method and apparatus for enhancing the broadcast of a live event (Patent) (1996: Fox Sports Productions, Inc.)
System for enhancing the television presentation of an object at a sporting event (Patent 5912700) (1996: Fox Sports Productions, Inc.)
System for re-registering a sensor during a live event (Patent) (1997: Fox Sports Productions, Inc.)
System for using a microphone in a baseball base (Patent) (1997: Fox Sports Productions, Inc.)
System for using a microphone in an object at a sporting event (Patent) (1997: Fox Sports Productions, Inc.)
System for enhancing the television presentation of an object at a sporting event (Patent 6154250) (1998: Fox Sports Productions, Inc.)
Method and apparatus for adding a graphic indication of a first down to a live video of a football game (Patent) (1999: Fox Sports Productions, Inc.)
System for measuring a jump (Patent) (1999: Sportvision, Inc.)
System for determining the end of a path for a moving object (Patent) (1999: Sportvision, Inc.)
System for determining information about a golf club and/or a golf ball (Patent) (1999: Sportvision, Inc.)
System for enhancing a video presentation of a live event (Patent 6597406) (2001: Sportvision, Inc.)
Virtual strike zone (Patent) (2002: Sportvision, Inc.)