Cisco Telepresence Brings Fans Closer to Players at NBA All-Star Game

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Cisco’s telepresence technology” comprising a 65-inch plasma screen, remote-controlled teleconferencing camera, and Ethernet connectivity to other telepresence systems” is set to reshape sports broadcasting and the fan experience. During last week’s NBA All-Star weekend, the system got a serious workout and, by all accounts, proved that new sports-broadcasting workflows and efficiencies are on the way.

“We see an increased use of telepresence because there is a cost associated with rolling in a production truck,” says David Hsieh, Cisco VP of marketing, Emerging Technologies. “If we can deploy this more broadly into venues, there can be a greater sense of immediacy for interviews, and instead of figuring out what crew is going to work an event or rolling in a truck, players and others can walk down the hall into an interview room and do an interview right away.”

The system works by having an interview subject sit in front of a teleconferencing camera (capable of 1080p output) mounted atop a 65-in. plasma screen. Two or more units are then connected via Ethernet, and interview subjects can see each other and talk back and forth.

“It works like a telephone, where you dial a number and are hooked up through the Cisco exchange,” says Hsieh.

That’s what occurred at the U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, where a telepresence unit was set up in the weight room next to the East and West All-Star locker rooms. Journalists in France interviewed Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs, and journalists in China interviewed Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets. Cisco telepresence units, whose price starts at $39,000 and depends on the number of monitors used (more monitors allow the “virtual meeting” to include more people), were located at both ends of the pipe, which transmitted images at 1.5 Mbps. ESPN also used the system to interview players and file reports from the arena.

“We can drive the bandwidth as low as 1.5 Mbps and up to 5 Mbps, depending on the quality settings,” says Hsieh. “Obviously, if you’re doing something like jumping jacks, you would need more bandwidth, but, for an interview where the only thing moving are lips, you can go 1.5 Mbps to 2.5 Mbps.”

A system was also set up in the NBA Jam Session, allowing fans to interact and ask questions of current and past NBA players. Allowing fans to have that level of interaction with players could be an important means of adding more value to the venue fan experience.

“Fans crave interactivity, and, in a tough economy, the arenas and stadiums need to make the experience special,” adds Hsieh. The Pittsburgh Penguins used the system during the playoffs last year to allow fans to interact with NHL legend Mario Lemieux.

Another Cisco technology offering, Stadiumvision, provides an HD infrastructure across an entire venue. Yankee Stadium will be the first facility to incorporate the technology, delivering HD signals to the concession areas, luxury suites, and more.

“There is a big benefit to the fan experience, but it can also create revenues,” says Hsieh. “You can use the digital display to order catering or merchandise. It offers more flexible ways to drive revenues.”

In an age when stadiums and arenas are increasingly jumping on fiber backbones provided by such companies as Level 3, HTN, and others, companies like Cisco and Glowpoint (which has a system in use by the NFL and ESPN) will continue to make gains and redefine the transmission landscape.

“I think this will lead to a new kind of content for both broadcasters and online,” adds Hsieh. “It’s a permanent resource in the venue, and you can use it as much as you want without any incremental costs.”

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