X Games Live: ESPN Emerging Technology Looks to Future with 4K, Visual Effects

X Games has always been a breeding ground for technological innovation and this year is no different, as ESPN’s Emerging Technology arm is conducting a series of 4K camera tests at L.A. Live this week. In addition, ESPN has increased its use of the Emerging Tech team’s real-time and near-time Visual Effects (VFX) system in its telecasts and is utilizing a new in-house scoring system for the time at Summer X.

Making 4K a Reality
ESPN purchased a Sony F65 4K camera last spring and Emerging Technologies has been utilizing it for a series of 4K tests at its ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Disney World in Orlando. These camera tests include an Atlanta Braves spring training game at Champion Stadium, golf at Disney’s Palm and Magnolia Courses, water skiing at Seven Seas Lagoon, and stockcar racing at The Richard Petty Driving Experience track.

“We were very impressed with the footage. You could actually see the ripples in the water coming off the jet ski and the rubber coming of the tires of the car,” says ESPN Emerging Technologies VP Anthony Bailey. “But the ecosystem is obviously not there yet. It took forever to get it off the camera drives. Then it took forever to get a playback device to play it on a monitor, so that still needs to be figured out.”

X Games will mark the first time Bailey and Co. have conducted a side-by-side test comparing the Sony F65 with a Sony 720p camera. Both cameras will capture the same angle of the Big Air competition.

“This way, we have the exact same point of view so we can really contrast them,” says Bailey. “If you are a veteran of sports TV, you’re going to see the benefit of 4K right away, but if you’re the average fan you may not. So by putting a Sony 4K monitor right next to a Sony 720p monitor and looking at it, you will really be able to see the difference.”

While Bailey is a big proponent of 4K, he also realizes that it is still most likely years away from being adopted on a widespread scale due to the gaping holes in the 4K-production workflow.

“The 4K workflow is so immature right now because there are very few pieces built,” says Bailey. “But we think that 4K will supplement 720p events in the near future. We built a controller where we can take a 720p snapshot within a 4K image. Think about putting a few 4K cameras around a stadium and you might be able to deploy fewer cameras and maintain the views you need. That is a big maybe and we don’t know that yet, but we’re looking at it.”

VFX Gets a Boost
While 4K may not be ready for primetime, ESPN’s real-time and near-time VFX system most certainly is. The system allows ESPN to insert life-like 3D virtual graphics (previously available solely in the postproduction realm) into the real-time environment on the screen. These elements can either be incorporated live or turned around in a matter of minutes for a bumper coming out of a commercial.

“Even if it’s not live, we can do quick turn-around post,” says Larry Jones, senior concept developer for VFX. “We could take someone’s B-roll and incorporate these [effects] into a few clips. Traditionally, that might take an hour to render, but we can crank out 10 of them in about five minutes.”

After deploying VFX on just a handful of occasions during its debut at Winter X Games 15 in 2011, ESPN produced 20 VFX elements at last year’s Summer X, then 70 at Winter X earlier this year, and now expects to break triple digits during its four days of coverage this week.

VFX also creates valuable branding opportunities for both ESPN and its potential advertisers, whether through virtual signage on the top of the Big Air ramp or a virtual tattoo of Shaun White’s face on the back of a shirtless skateboarder.

ESPN will look to take the VFX sponsorship angle to the next step when it launches it Global expansion next year (a total of six events in five countries), by inserting regionalized VFX elements depending on the nation where the X Games telecast is airing.

“We think real-time and near real-time visual effect are a game changer,” says Bailey. “We are now testing ways to take it to the next level with advertisers or our own brand so that can immerse the event in someone’s campaign.”

Scoring Moves In-House
In anticipation of the global expansion in 2013, ESPN brought its X Games scoring system in house for the first time at Winter X in January. (SMT previously operated the scoring system.)

“When you go global with six events per year, it makes sense to own all of your data from beginning to end, and all that data start with the scoring system,” says Bailey. “So it made more sense to bring it in house and control the ecosystem.”

By bringing the scoring system in-house, ESPN can now utilize this scoring data to create new real-time statistics applications, including an online GameCast play-by-play platform that will debut next year.

Driving this application will be TrickTrack, a new judging system that allows ex- and injured athletes to input tricks via an iPad in real time as they occur during competition.

“By inputting the tricks in real-time, we can start to build a historical record of tricks inside of a run,” says X Games Scoring Technology Manager Chris Cokas. “Now we are building pages online that are going to show that information in real time, similar to GameCast, that you would watch for football, along with 3D renderings of all the courses, rider tracking, heights, tricks, and more.”

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