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World Cup 2010 a feast of technology and tribalism

Don't be surprised if there are fewer meetings booked over the 31 days starting June 11.

Chances are there will be fewer people at their desks, too, more people responding to e-mails on their BlackBerry and, oh yeah, the network might be a little sluggish as well.

That's because the FIFA World Cup 2010 finals kick off at 10 a.m. Friday, June 11 as Mexico takes on hosts South Africa. For soccer fans, there's going to be talk of little else until the championship game July 11. For technology geeks, this World Cup final will be the first time a live event of this magnitude will harness high-speed, big-pipe networks in ways never before tried. The sheer enormity of the data surging across fibre optic cables around the world is staggering, more so when you consider the layers of coverage: live 3D, HD television, online streaming, mobile, text, still images and voice, all of which will test hardware, software and people to extremes.

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Held every four years, the world's largest cultural and sporting event captures the attention of about 26.3 billion television viewers over the course of the 31-day event. Many more will be watching on their mobiles and their computer screens this time around.

As such, it will be almost impossible to escape electronic coverage and discussion of the competition because while soccer remains a second-tier sport in North America, the World Cup teases out ethnic and tribal expressions in even the most assimilated citizens. In other parts of the world, the World Cup is the marquee event.

The difference this time around is that the event will reach beyond traditional media such as print, television and radio far more than ever before. This time around, technology is giving audiences a plethora of options in how they consumer the spectacle.

The biggest technology shift was to be the broadcasting of games in 3D. Twenty five games were on tap as a joint venture between Sony and ESPN, which holds the world broadcast rights. But a fight between FIFA and Aruna AG, the Swiss firm that was supposed to be selling the stream into 800 digitally equipped theatres in 80 countries, has put that in jeopardy.

However, Louis Rousseau, VP of Marketing and Communication at Sensio, a Montreal-based provider of 3D cinema content and technology, is working directly with FIFA in a scramble to sign up theatres.

"We've not given up yet and we are still in talks," says Mr. Rousseau. "We may not be able to offer all the games at each place but we hope to have something to announce soon."

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For those with 3D TV screens at home, Comcast has exclusive U.S. rights and Rogers, Bell and Telus have a deal with CBC to broadcast two games, the third place consolation final and the final itself, July 11 for those who have already bought 3D television.

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For traditional TV audiences all the games will be in 720p High Definition.

"There are 106 games and they will all be live in HD," says CBC sports executive producer Trevor Pilling, acknowledging it's going to be a logistical nightmare. "We're going to be bringing six independent live feeds over fibre optics from each game, one main with a back up, end zones and two player-isolation shots."

The challenges of cost and logistics in South Africa - finding the space being one of them - means Mr. Pilling and his crew will be in a Toronto control room mixing the feeds, which is also where their august panel of pundits will pontificate.

Estimating the size of the audience is a shot in the dark, says Mr. Pilling.

"We really don't know because of the times of the games," he says. "But it will be big. A lot of people are going to be missing time at work for these games."

All games will be shown live on CBC, rebroadcast on BOLD (which is going HD shortly) at a later time slot and on demand via streaming from Meanwhile, Rogers Cable is offering games as part of their Video on Demand package.

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Fans watching on will have a more interactive experience says Dan Tavares, head of

Viewers will be able to pull from the same streams feeding the live TV broadcast and customize their viewing option, he says, giving them the ability to switch to an overhead view of the screen during live play to get a perspective of where space is opening up and which player is making a run to receive the ball, something more akin to the experience watching at a stadium.

There will also be a chat forum for viewers - on TV or the site - to interact with CBC TV's panel, ask questions, quibble with statements and add their perspective.

And because the Web is an interactive multimedia platform, viewers will be able to pull stats during the game rather than wait for them to appear on the screen.

CBC has also inked a deal with Rogers to stream the mobile version to iPhones, Blackberries and Android-based phones, says David Purdy, vice-president and general manager of television services at Rogers Communications.

"For a special one-time charge for this event of $10 plus a $5 Video on Demand registration, Rogers customers can stream live games to their mobile phones for the duration of the competition," says Mr. Purdy.

It's a massive coup for Rogers since it all but blocks customers of Bell, Telus and other carriers from accessing the games, though there is an option for those customers with robust data plans to stream games from home to their mobiles.

"We would welcome those Bell customers," says Mr. Purdy, the smirk barely visible, noting Rogers is also a prime sponsor of CBC's World Cup broadcasts.

And in a twist on the life-imitating-art concept, ESPN and CISCO Networks have linked up to use the latter's Telepresence video-conferencing technology with dedicated broadband connections to link stadium studios with their other facilities in England and the U.S. Instead of fighting the vagaries of satellite windows and inevitable lags, ESPN will use the broadcast quality of the video-conferencing system to host live interviews with their on-site panels and post and pre game shows with other guests.

ESPN says the system will be more reliable and cheaper than the traditional satellite bounce and marks a dramatic step for video-conferencing technology.

This is the first of four articles rolling out this week looking at how technology is shaping the FIFA World Cup 2010

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