There will be more on display at tonight's NFL season opener at Gillette Stadium than a packed house of rabid fans, a smiling Robert Kraft and the unveiling of the fifth Super Bowl Championship banner.
You won't see the latest in video highlight technology, but you'll sure notice a night and day difference when Matrix-like 360-degree replays are displayed on Gillette's big board, on NFL Mobile, NFL.com, TV, and the NFL's YouTube Channel.
In taking staple play replays next-gen, 11 NFL venues will use Intel's freeD tech-driven ring of 38 ultra-high resolution 5K cameras installed high above the field, combined with super high-performance servers to produce a 15-30 second replay from 1 terabyte of video data for use in a matter of minutes.
What do these replays look like? Here are a few from the Fox broadcast of SBLI this past February from Houston.
Beyond Gillette Stadium, the freeD systems from Intel have been installed in the homes of the Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings. They join prior systems at the home of the San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans, and Baltimore Ravens.
The systems have been used in the last two Super Bowls, albeit sparingly, and will be used for Super Bowl 52 next February at the home of the new US Bank Stadium in Minnesota.
Whether they are at games in these venues, watching at home with friends, online, or on the go with a mobile app, fans will see the next-generation of highlights from the NFL. This new dimension in replays coincides (not coincidentally) with the inclusion of gigantic video boards and circular displays in recently opened and due-to-debut new stadiums in many NFL cities.
The Big Picture
NFL teams / venue owners are hardly the only ones with their eyes on the replay prize. The value of this immersive video has also been used by the National Basketball Association in its all-star game. Other notable non-NFL customers include Major League Baseball, the Pro Golfers Association, the NCAA, UEFA and U.S. Tennis Association.
As a NFL fan, I'm also thinking of how 360-degree replays could possibly help take the calling of the game to the next level. With these immersive highlights, I'm hoping broadcast teams would be able to provide fans a more analytical, detailed take on what they see -and what the cameras see.
*Really * Big Data
The gating factors in creating and delivering the highlights for view on stadium big boards and TV gamecasts are video processing and time. In the past, these dictated when and how often in a game the replays could be used. As the time needed to create them decreases, expect to see a marked increase in their use with live games. But that's just for in-game use, the replays can be archived for use in highlight shows and for on-demand viewing at online locations.
The control rooms that take the feeds from the 38 5K cameras use Intel i7 servers tasked with processing up to 1 terabyte of data per each 15 to 30-second clip. After capturing the data, Intel explained, the volumetric video then travels through miles of fiber-optic cable into a special control room where the Intel production team does its work on-site.
The crew virtually recreates the selected clip in 3D from an ideal vantage point - or player's perspective - to take fans directly into the game from angles that traditional cameras can't reach. The sheer number of cameras in the 360-degree replay ring is impressive when you consider that many venues have used six to help feed their big boards during games.
In the Beginning
The deep roots of 360 replays dates back to around 2001 – CBS Television and folks at Carnegie Mellon – helped create and evolve the tech-driven innovation, which was initially called EyeVision. Replay Technologies further advanced the cause and was purchased by Intel to make up part of Intel Sports. Intel calls the enabling technology freeD. Along the way, the system won CBS an Emmy, as well as high praise from those who saw the replays. Clearly, seeing was believing.
The Big Challenge
So why weren't fans flooded with 360 replays? Though cost of the system is a factor for stadium owners, the amount of time it takes to create a 360 replay is the key issue. In the past, timeouts and ad breaks were among their best friends as they gave Intel the time to pull all the camera feeds and data together to create a 360-degree replay.
It's hoped that using increasingly more powerful servers will trim the time needed and thus help them proliferate throughout game casts at the venues equipped with the advanced Intel high-res camera ring syste
A Business Proposition
What hasn't been publicly discussed is the business model for the Intel 360-degree play systems. Do stadium owners foot the bill like they do for new and upgraded stadium wireless networks and countless other amenities?
One media report, concerning the implementation of the Intel system at Lucas Oil Stadium, stated that the team would address the cost of the system by charging broadcasters to use the 360-degree replays that the system produces.
With three stadium implementations already under its belt, and the eight new implementations, it's safe to assume that Intel and its team owner partners have discussed an array of options, especially with the sports tech company looking to bring the roughly other two thirds of NFL venues aboard.
The Bottom Line
It appears that early NFL venue owners have liked what they have seen in the way of freeD technology for 360-degree replays. With the additional eight, Intel will have roughly a third of the league onboar
Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the wide world of sports. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining developments at the intersection of sports and technology. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.