The first National Football League game of the season generally tops U.S. television ratings, and Sunday's game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants is expected to follow the rule, drawing an estimated 36 million viewers. But this time fans will experience something new: Instant replays using three-dimensional technology reminiscent of the slow-motion bullet-dodging scenes in the “Matrix” movie franchise.
An Israeli company, Replay Technologies, is responsible for the technology that enables these replays. Established less than two years ago, the company has already seen its technology used in the broadcasts of the 2012 London Olympic Games. For all that, the company's development center is a Tel Aviv basement; its focal point is a green-topped table with tiny football player dolls and cameras all around.
"We use this model to create simulations and to understand the requirements we face," explains CEO and cofounder Oren Haimovitch-Yogev.
Using 24 cameras installed on the stadium walls and an array of servers, Replay allows the broadcast’s director to plan virtual camera paths, just as the directors of 3-D animation film do. The main difference is that while processing animated sequences can take hours, the replays are aired about 30 seconds after the action takes place. The company's technological achievement earned it an Emmy Awards nomination last month in sports broadcasting technology.
The processing requirements are very high. To produce this small interval the company needs to create parallel processing systems and use compression technology that until now was reserved for the military.
In May 2012 NBC used the company's technology in covering the PGA golf tournament, with Tiger Woods competing. "Five months after the company was established we went live on the air 30 seconds after the play itself," boasts Haimovitch-Yogev. Two months later the replays produced by the company were broadcast from the Olympics in London to 160 countries. The technology was later used also in Major League Baseball broadcasts.
The algorithm developed by Replay Technologies synchronizes the cameras to create the required effect. The company has also developed specialized hardware to attain the speeds needed to produce the replay. "We cover every inch of the field, but the moment the bat hits the ball the cameras need to change focus," explains Haimovitch-Yogev. "Everything needs to be coordinated and the information needs to be relayed at lightning speed to allow for the creation of the video clip."
From military drones to football games
Replay Technologies was founded on New Year’s Eve of 2012 by Haimovitch-Yogev and brothers Aviv and Matteo Shapira. Haimovitch-Yogev, who has a dual degree in physics and electrical engineering from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, worked at Elbit Systems as a manager in the electro-optics group before moving to Britain. There he was responsible for optical development for the Watchkeeper, a British unmanned aircraft, at UAV Tactical Systems, which was a joint venture of Elbit Systems and French multinational Thales Group. There he met Aviv Shapira, an aeronautical engineer who was responsible for developing the UAV's avionics.
The idea of forming Replay Technology was hatched in a nearby pub. "We went to watch Manchester United play during a lunch break," says Haimovitch-Yogev. "During the match Aviv said he would like to see the game from the perspective of the ball, and we started making sketches and tossing around ideas." Hooking up with Aviv's brother seemed the right thing to do at that point. Matteo Shapira, Replay's development and technology manager, was a member of the founding team of Animation Lab at the JVP Incubator in Jerusalem.
"My interest in photography began as a child, but after years working in defense industries I wanted to engage in other things like entertainment and sports," says Haimovitch-Yogev.
At first the company was financed by the founders and their families. Much of the money went toward buying hardware and cameras and for travel between London - where the two founders still lived – and Tel Aviv, where Matteo Shapira resided.
Rather than broadcast cameras, which can cost more than $100,000 each, Replay uses cameras designed for systems that find production flaws in microchips and cost just $8,000. At this price the company can install dozens of cameras at the chosen location.
In April 2012 the company met with the Olympics organizing committee, which approved the use of its technology for the upcoming games. With this agreement in hand, the company raised $4 million in seed capital from U.S.-based Cervin Ventures and private U.S. and Israeli investors. Replay now has 13 employees that includes people with hardware and optics backgrounds as well as people who have specialized in computer-generated animation.
While working with the some of the world's largest television networks in broadcasting major sports events, the company has continued developing technology for creating data for 3-D video similar to what is used in computer-generated 3-D animations. Rather than storing and presenting a pixel array for length and width, data are kept on three vectors - length, width, and depth.
"As soon as we succeeded in photographing more than one figure, we were able to take the technology from individualized fields such as golf and gymnastics to team sports like baseball, football, basketball, and soccer," explains Haimovitch-Yogev. "To pave the way we decided to concentrate on the two most lucrative fields in the United States, football and baseball."
The company signed with the top team in each sport - the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys, in baseball and football, respectively. After installing the system at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network began broadcasting the team's games using instant replays from Replay Technology. Seven company employees are now installing and fine-tuning the system at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, home of the Cowboys, in preparation for Sunday’s game.
"Right now, from a cost perspective, it’s better to concentrate on places where installations will be permanent," explains Haimovitch-Yogev. "Costs for moving the system are high, and except for exceptional sporting events like the NBA All-Star Game or Formula One races, installation for one-time events is hard to justify." He thinks the company will finish the year with revenues of $600,000 and expects this to rise to between $2 million and $4 million in 2014.
And although the company is currently focused on instant replay broadcasts for sporting events, Haimovitch-Yogev says Replay's vision is much broader. "We are creating a new video format that we call freeD," he says. "We are producing the necessary compression tools, the formats and the media players. The viewer at home using the company's player will be able to choose the camera's virtual path while viewing a game and share the video he created over social networks. In most cases the live event's director has the broadest view, but sometimes he misses important incidents or other ways of looking at things: We can create here a niche of direction by the audience."
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