Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sony tests camera stitching equipment at the Dome

Sony R&D engineers tested out some brand new, prototype camera stitching and 3D technology at today's Syracuse University women's basketball game in the Carrier Dome. About a dozen students who are taking a 3D Production elective at the Newhouse School were among the first people in the world to see this technology.

The technology stitches multiple HD cameras together to create one large image. Within that large, panoramic image, the engineers can operate what they called a "virtual camera" using a joystick that provides pan/tilt/zoom control. In the photo below, you can see the full, stitched panoramic image at the top. The white rectangle represents what part of the image the virtual camera sees, and is displayed in full beneath the panoramic image.

By stitching together multiple stationary cameras, action on the entire court can be captured at every moment. By feeding those cameras say, back to ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, a "virtual camera" operator could control the game cam. Instant replays would be possible of any part of the court at any time. Additional "virtual cameras" could be added so, for instance, additional operators could get tight ISOs using the same feed.

Because the cameras are stationary, the Sony engineers said it would be possible to create a depth map by measuring the distance from the camera to the various reference points around the court. Using this depth map – a 3D wireframe of the court – it would be possible to achieve a potentially lower cost but still effective 3D image. They didn't have this set up at the demo but said it would be possible.

The system consisted of three cameras placed side by side on the main TV camera platform overlooking the court. The three cameras were precisely positioned and leveled so that among the three of them the entire court could be seen at all times. These little guys go for $50-60,000 each with a lens. Notice that the left and right cameras are getting cross shots instead of being positioned straight ahead. This made it easier for the geometry to match up.

The cameras sat on a rudimentary plywood rig on a tripod: a true prototype. Sony and SU Athletics chose the women's basketball game as opposed to a men's game because there is much less commotion and more room on the camera platform.

The signal from the cameras ran underneath the bleachers to a table with CCUs and their remote controllers, a couple flatscreen displays driven by a Leitch multiviewer, a high-end $35,000 broadcast reference monitor, a Vaio laptop with a USB joystick, and three HDCAM tape decks to record the three cameras. The engineers spent a day and a half setting up the equipment.

The business appeal for this type of research is cutting costs. ESPNU, for instance, plans on adding hundreds of more events in the coming years. By installing a few of these rigs in an arena, all of the camera control, switching and replays could happen in Charlotte (home of ESPN Regional TV) or Bristol and save having a full crew at an arena all day.

In theory, this technology could also allow the viewer back home to have complete control of their game watching experience.

Looking forward, the use of 4K cameras could provide more flexibility with zooming in and not losing pixels in a HD frame. Sony will use the footage they recorded today at NAB and for other demonstrations.

The Sony guys also had a 3D TV and a box of those goofy glasses to show off their 3D reel. Aside from sports, it included a music video, animated movies, and video games. The seemingly unanimous best-looking 3D programming is golf. They covered a few holes at the Masters tournament last year with 3D cameras, and this coming year the plan is to cover every hole with a 2D and 3D camera crew – in other words, around 200 cameras in all.

Neal Coffey, who will teach the 3D Production elective this semester and is head of the university's Video Production Unit, arranged the visit with Roger Springfield, who oversees the athletics department's media.

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