Actioncam Provides New Views of Standard Venues

By Carolyn Braff

For CBS Sports’ coverage of the Final Four this month, the network used a new aerial video system that helped fit the entire Ford Field into a 16:9 frame. The Actioncam system is now being tested for use in upcoming football broadcasts, since the stabilized camera can travel up to 50 mph, offering views and graphical integration never before possible from an overhead system.

“Actioncam is a camera that runs on cables, similar to Skycam and Cablecam,” explains PJ Bennett, president/CEO of Actioncam. “Traditionally, the complaints from directors and producers have been that the overhead camera is not fast enough to keep up with the action, and, even if you do push the limit a little bit, the image gets pretty shaky. We have solved those problems, along with solving the problem of rigging in arenas like basketball stadiums.”

Today’s sports broadcasts originate from venues not necessarily designed to host the sport taking place there, as was the case during the Final Four, which was played at Detroit’s Ford Field, a football venue. The enormous area created difficulties in terms of beauty shots, and the central scoreboard would have obstructed a traditional Skycam or Cablecam system. Actioncam, however, is able to rig underneath the scoreboard to cover the entire court, enabling the same type of midfield shot over a parquet floor that is now standard on a football field.

“For the Final Four in Detroit, the cables went from the camera up to the four corners of the stadium and then were redirected by pulleys off to the eighth floor of one side of the stadium, above all the press boxes,” Bennett says. “We put our four computer-controlled reels in the corners, and they moved the cameras from those points.”

It takes two technicians to run the Actioncam system. A pilot moves the camera in 3D space — up and down, left and right, front and back — using a set of joysticks. The camera operator handles the pan, tilt, zoom, and focus of the shot.

Actioncam uses a Panasonic HC1500 broadcast-quality multiformat camera, along with a Fujinon 4.3 computer-controlled lens.

“Everything in our system is computer-controlled, or what we call instrumented,” Bennett says. “We have all the data, so we can do other features like support the first-and-10 line, which is traditionally something you don’t see from an aerial camera because they don’t have that data.”

To support football’s first-and-10 line, the Sportvision operator must receive data on exactly where the camera is pointing, and the graphic line is then overlaid onto the image. As the camera moves, updated data must be sent to predict how the image is going to change, so that the line can move along with it.

“Skycam is not accurate enough to be able to provide that data,” says Bennett, who was the chief engineer of Skycam for a few seasons before bringing his electrical-engineering expertise to Actioncam. “I tried that at Skycam. We sent the data we did have, but it wasn’t accurate enough so the first-and-10 line was jumping around on the field.

“With Actioncam, we can very accurately position our camera so we know where it is in 3D space within less than an inch,” he says. “We know how far we’re zoomed in, we know where our focus is set, so we can provide them a focal point for wherever we’re shooting and add in that virtual line.”

So far, Bennett’s eight-person team has done plenty of testing in the Tulsa, OK, area, specifically with the NBA Development League and some high school football games, but the Final Four was Actioncam’s coming-out party.

“Basketball has been one sport that has traditionally not been supported by these camera systems, so that’s why we wanted to get out and really focus on doing basketball,” Bennett says. “We just got done doing some football at Oklahoma State, and we got some amazing shots going at 30 miles an hour over a football field, so we are looking at providing those shots for football this fall.”

He is currently in talks with all four NFL broadcast networks to incorporate his system into NFL coverage for the 2009 season.

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