Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Yellow Line is Better

It's been around for so long that we take it for granted, but that doesn't mean it isn't one of the coolest innovations of our era. I'm talking about the computer generated first down marker that appears on most football games broadcast for the last ten years.

It seems like a pretty simple concept, but actually making it work is a complex challenge. According to the website, "it takes a tractor-trailer rig of equipment, including eight computers and at least four people" to pull it off.

It requires both GPS and CGI technology. special camera mounts, 3D models of the field, and special color palletes to help the system understand how to draw the line over the field but not over a player (see image above).

The company behind this technology is called "SportsVision," and they've extended their capabilities into other sports as well. If you've watched a NASCAR race, you've seen the little pointers that identify which car is which, along with real-time telemetry to show the car's speed, lap time, or distance behind the leader. In NBA games, they overlay a shot chart on the floor. For MLB games, you've seen how they track the motion of the pitch and show where it ended up in the strike zone. They've developed applications for golf, hockey, horse racing, soccer... even bowling. They're even responsible for the virtual ads that appear on the screen but not in the ballpark.

During the research for my football book I spent a lot of time watching footage of NFL games from the fifties, sixties, and seventies. I missed having that yellow line across the screen to show me unequivocally where the first down marker was. Growing up, watching games in the seventies and eighties, I don't recall ever feeling that my viewing experience was diminished because we lacked those things. But now, the enhancements are obvious.

ESPN recently re-broadcast the 1958 championship game, and Major League Baseball launched their new network with a showing of Don larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Watching both of them, I was struck by how much better the broadcasts are today. There are more cameras and they're able to get you closer to the field with their zoom lenses. The angles of the shots are better, which is probably not the result of a technological advance so much as it is just learning what looks better. The quality and quantity of in-game data is better... I could go on and on, but the overall experience of watching a game on TV today is vastly superior. The contrast is just as dramatic as comparing the production quality of an episode of the Honeymooners with an episode of Heroes. Whenever you start longing for "the good old days," make sure you know what you're getting.