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Overhead system may change TV sports Add to ...

A computer whiz working out of a garage to produce breakthrough technology is part of the folklore of the digital age.

Michael Brown of Brandon set up shop in his father's garage and invented a camera system that may be the next big thing in sports television.

It's receiving rave reviews.

"Mike's system is, I think, genius," said Glenn Norman, the chief executive officer of an Atlanta TV production company and now a strategic partner in Brown's enterprise.

"This is going to revolutionize TV sport," said Ralph Mellanby, a veteran Olympic producer who worked with Norman on the Atlanta Games of 1996.

The concept got its start when Brown, a self-taught software engineer, was watching The Matrix.

He was intrigued by the sweeping, circular shots that showed the characters in combat.

"There were instances in the movie where the camera would spin around a person and sort of slow down in time," Brown said. "And I thought, what if we could do that for sports?"

Experimenting with four motorized cameras and Lego hockey men, he wrote a software program that he thought would produce a similar picture.

"Lo and behold, it worked," he said. "It took some time, about two months, but it did work."

Four years later, the finished product, called VantEDGE, consists of 40 robotic cameras that circle the upper perimeter of an arena. Brown's software pulls together the video to produce a turning, 360-degree overhead shot.

The company name, not surprisingly, is 360 Replays Ltd. Mike's father, Larry Brown, who bankrolled the project, is the company CEO. Mike, 30, is the chief technology officer.

Early on, the Browns took the camera system to the National Association of Broadcasters trade show in Las Vegas.

Out of the NAB show, a short article was published in a computer science newsletter that Norman, in Atlanta, happened to read.

"For many, many years I had been looking for a 360-degree replay," Norman said.

"I gathered my team together, veteran TV producers, showed it to them and asked: 'Is this what we've been looking for for so long?' Collectively, all slack-jawed, they said yes."

A similar system called EyeVision had been tried by CBS at the 2001 Super Bowl, but it was expensive, produced a jerky picture and was eventually shelved.

Brown says he had never heard of EyeVision until 2005, a year after he started his project.

VantEDGE was built for about $150,000, which is cheap.

Norman believes it will be able to generate revenue through sponsorships - "that replay was brought to you by ..."

Because it shoots areas of an arena not usually seen on TV, the value of signage may increase.

Mellanby, a consultant to the project, says it will reduce the number of conventional cameras needed to shoot a sporting event.

In terms of quality, the picture is fairly smooth. It has the ability to slow frames and freeze them to illustrate an athlete's flaw or good form.

An online application in which a user controls the 40 cameras is possible.

Earlier this year, Norman, through his contacts, was able to get the system installed at the Philips Arena in Atlanta, where it shot several telecasts of basketball's Hawks and hockey's Thrashers.

It was also used at the Disneyland Martial Arts Festival about a year ago.

Clips of both can be seen at http://www.360replays.com/pro_sports/.

"The Disney producers and directors - and remember, this is a company synonymous with video innovation - were blown away," Norman said. "There is no other way to put it. They all said, 'Please let us know when you have it in HDTV.' "

Bob Hawkanson, the director of operations for a sports and entertainment production company near Orlando, saw VantEDGE at the Disney festival.

"It's a pretty amazing system," he said. "I thought the picture quality was good. And I know it's only a matter of time until it gets better. The technology is out there.

"I think what's stopping them from doing it is they just need some capital. It would be amazing to see this company flourish if they had the right kind of financing behind them."

Mike Brown says converting VantEDGE to high-definition television will be achieved by next summer, but the hardware will be expensive.

"We've been securing relationships with engineering firms from really across the globe so that we can get the pieces together for HDTV," he said. "One of the pieces comes out of Italy. It's the robotics for our pan-tilt [camera] For HD, the cameras have to be highly accurate and we've commissioned a company that did the Turin Games in Italy."

The cost to build VantEDGE in HDTV will be at least $2-million.

To raise the money, the group was in Toronto two weeks ago pitching their product to potential investors.

They say the reaction was enthusiastic.

"The meetings in Toronto went very, very well," Larry said.

The group hopes to have the system used at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.

"I personally think it would be a great opportunity to showcase some home-grown Canadian technology at a world-class event hosted right here in Canada," Mike said.

Mellanby said preliminary talks have taken place with some Olympic broadcasters.

*****

Like The Matrix, only better

A video technology company has developed a real-time technique for capturing 360 degree views of live sporting events.

Camera ring

Up to 72 cameras are suspended high above the playing field on an aluminium rig. The cameras track the same sequence, like a player, ball or puck - offering a 360 degree video that can be viewed from many angles.

Referee

Allowing a referee to view an instant video replay from any angle could reduce many controversial decisions

Camera

Pan-tilt-zoom cameras are individually controlled by a 3D computer system and record at 30 frames a second.

A single camera operator tracks the action through one "master view" device with the other cameras following the same events from their respective positions

Brains

A rack of hot-swappable servers crunch the video data in real-time

Replay generator

One replay operator can pull together a video sequence of a goal or foul where the camera appears to fly around the incident

NINIAN CARTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL; SOURCES: VANTEDGE TECHNOLOGY; REUTERS

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