HBO Boxing Gives Inertia Unlimited’s Ref Cam a Successful First Run
Point-of-view (POV) camera technology has come a long way over the past decade. Sports fans have been treated to unique angles ranging from Catcher Cam to on-board racecar cameras. Some gimmicky, some innovative, POV cameras enable action views never seen before.
The latest development in POV camera technology was used, for the first time, as part of HBO Boxing’s Amir Kahn-Danny Garcia broadcast on July 14. Ref Cam is a lightweight (less than a pound), low-latency, 1080i, RF camera system created by specialty camera developer Inertia Unlimited. The device was worn by referee Kenny Bayless and cut live into the HBO broadcast, to mostly rave reviews from production crew and fans.
“We were very glad to bring this to HBO and allow them to be the first to test it out,” says Inertia Unlimited President Jeff Silverman. “Clearly, the continuing goal — and this is just version number one — is smaller, lighter, and, more critically, less intrusive to the person wearing it. Our first run was completely reliable; we didn’t have any issues with it.”
The 1080i-native unit comprises mostly circuit boards with minimal casing and protection to help reduce size and weight. According to Silverman, it is the same as the camera used for Gopher Cam during NASCAR on Fox telecasts. It has a thin design — ¼ in. thick — and is manufactured to accept a lens measuring just ¼ in. in diameter, or about the size of a standard pencil eraser.
The key to the camera’s success was a special, very lightweight transmitter, which, according to Silverman, is yet to be officially released in the U.S. and was originally designed for military purposes operating in a license-free band. He says it’s the smallest RF transmitter he has seen to date.
“We’ve been waiting for years for this, honestly,” he adds. “Very recently, the door is starting to be opened for truly lightweight, high-quality, hi-def transmitters that can run for a good amount of time on not too many batteries. That combination is important.”
Battery power was supplied to run the camera for the entire 12 rounds if necessary — or about one hour. The signal was transmitted just off the ring to a receiver and then brought back by traditional means, via fiber, to the production truck. Because of the transmitter’s very low latency, the feed was able to be cut-in live, along with the other cameras deployed in the arena, by HBO’s director.
“It was a huge success,” says Jason Cohen, director of live events at HBO Sports, adding that the crew experienced no on-air dropouts of the feed. “It certainly has spurred us into trying to determine how many other shows we can get it on, based on how it was so well received internally by producers as well as what we saw from what the public’s opinions were following the fight.”
The device provided minimal intrusion for Bayless. Silverman did not want the device to be obvious and designed the lens to replace the top button on the referee’s shirt, with the rest of system concealed beneath it. Bayless is widely regarded as one of boxing’s more popular refs and during warm-ups prior to the match was greeted by many colleagues and spectators.
“Everyone is grabbing him and hugging him, and I was wondering how many people actually realized he had a camera on him,” smiles Silverman. “Probably, most didn’t.“
For Silverman, Ref Cam is a major development in advancing high-definition RF camera technology to a level that rivals the capabilities available at standard-def.
“The thing that has happened in our industry is, we have had a very mature standard-def selection of equipment, and then, when we went to hi-def, especially RF-wise, for a long time, there was no way to transmit it without quite a bit of latency, and the transmitter would require quite a bit of power and size,” he says. “So everything that standard-def had solved — small size, light weight, low power consumption — was all thrown out the window, and, only recently, a couple of companies have come out with these exceptionally lightweight transmitters. Although they still don’t come close to matching what we could do in standard-def, they’re getting to the point where a truly concealed, broadcast-quality, hi-def link that is digital and reliable is quite possible now.”
According to Cohen, HBO’s producers and directors were very pleased with how seamlessly the specialty camera blended into the broadcast workflow.
“There’s a reason why we’ve all waited this long for something like this,” he says. He points out that the signal matches the rest of the show and can be cut-in like that from any other game camera. Also, he adds, the camera is small enough to be worn unobtrusively and features an RF pack that enables the signal to be transmitted seamlessly without breakup.
Although the RF receiver was located just at ringside, Silverman was thorough in his testing of the system’s RF capabilities, going as far as to walk around the entire back row of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center to ensure that there were no dropouts.
“[That] also opens the door to other places you can put on, not just the referee,” says Cohen. “Technically, I don’t think there was a major drop-off at all. It was a very high-quality camera chip, and I think we were extremely pleased with the quality on the first time out of the gate. And it’s only going to get better.”
He acknowledges that challenges with deploying the camera emerge with each event, including a referee’s willingness to wear it, the Boxing State Athletic Commission’s approving it from state to state, and internal budget constraints. Those issues aside, though, the network’s interest in the technology is “high,” and Cohen expects to use it in September for HBO’s next boxing event.
“This will be the type of technology where, the more you get familiar with it and the more you understand its power and its abilities, the more you will be able to put it in situations where you can fully leverage it into things you were never able to do before,” he says. “[We] came back home with a DVD melt of it and did further analysis of the things that happened that we didn’t even get to notice because we were too busy producing the show. Now we’re starting to understand what else it was able to do that night that we didn’t get to fully take advantage of. When we bring it back in September, which is our plan, we’ll be a little bit better prepared to use it in other capacities.”