3D Robotics Play Pivotal Role for ESPN NBA Coverage

ESPN’s first NBA 3D telecast last Friday night at Madison Square Garden for a game between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat embraced some new technologies that solve one of the major dilemmas facing 3D sports coverage in sold out arenas: producing the game effectively without killing seats.
The key? Six robotic 3D camera systems built with Sony HDC-P1 cameras that were located over each basket, on a Flycam, on a pole over the entrance to center court, and in the slash positions. ESPN worked alongside Pace and Sony, modified existing Sony camera systems to reduce the footprint of both the robotic and handheld rigs (with the latter now at under 35 pounds).
“We were able to have 3D robotic systems in spaces where we don’t need to kill any seats,” says Anthony Bailey, ESPN, vice president of emerging technology. “And in the next year the rigs will get even smaller.”
That development is important for getting the buy-in of teams and leagues. A constant challenge in the early 3D efforts has been negotiating camera positions with team season ticket executives who, logically, are concerned first and foremost with the needs of their clients.
“This arena is sold out and we couldn’t come here and kill 100 seats held by loyal patrons,” says Steve Hellmuth, NBA Entertainment, SVP of Operations and Technology. “ESPN did a great job to make this work.”
There were a number of important technology milestones at the event. The 3D Flycam flew about four rows out over the crowd and was used by both the 3D and 2D production teams. The robotic camera located over the center court vomitory was able to capture low angle court coverage from a premium seat location. Those two cameras provided the majority of game coverage.
Without those robotic systems the only realistic option would be mounting 3D cameras on top of the 2D rigs, similar to what CBS Sports did for the US Open tennis tournament.
“But then the 2D show would control the 3D show and the 3D effect would not be as good,” adds Bailey.
Phil Orlins, ESPN 3D coordinating producer, says that the Flycam shot is very effective but, ideally, it would be located a little bit lower (and likewise, the camera over the vomitory would be a little bit higher).
Despite those tweaks he was more than happy with the positions, especially considering that there were three other network broadcasts being done in the arena: MSG and Sun Networks on the regional side and ESPN’s 2D team.
“There are four teams in here with full camera coverage and there is nothing more important than to be where we want to be and have our cameras at the right proximity for 3D,” he adds.
The only downside of the robotic systems is that, as Jed Drake, ESPN, Executive Producer and SVP of Event Production describes it, the systems are like operating cameras through a periscope. For example, a camera person operating a hard camera while often be looking at both the viewfinder and the rest of the field of play so they can more easily anticipate the action. But with a robotic camera that wider view of what is happening outside of the viewfinder is currently unavailable.
Bringing the show together was a Sony MVX-8000X production switcher in the NEP 3D production trailer. The broadcast itself was a solid mix of smooth tracking shots from the Flycam coupled with the robotic camera at center court and the POV cameras on top of the backboard. For Hellmuth and the team at the NBA, a team that has been at the forefront of 3D productions for more than five years, the move heralded a new day in NBA coverage.
“This represents a tremendous advancement for the state of the art because the cameras are in ideal positions, something we have never been able to do before,” says Hellmuth. “This is an optimal production.”

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