Where do all the cool ESPN broadcast technologies come from?

ESPN's new Innovation Lab is improving game-watching--from NFL to World Cup to billiards... yes, billiards.

ESPN’s new Innovation Lab opened in October at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex (to be rebranded as the ESPN Wide World of Sports next month) at Walt Disney World Resort. This is where ESPN’s Emerging Technology team works to develop broadcast-related technologies in the middle of a real-world testing ground—a sports complex that hosts 250,000 pro and amateur athletes a year. The lab’s creations include ESPN Snap Zoom (a freeze-frame technology that debuted on Monday Night Football in September) and Ball Track (which can track home runs showing the distance and height of the ball).

I recently talked to Anthony Bailey, vice president of Emerging Technology for ESPN, who oversees the lab.

Where was the ESPN lab before you opened at the Wide World of Sports?

Before that, when we came up with an idea we wanted to test, we would go to a local high school in Connecticut, but we could only go certain times, depending on school. So that’s why the Wide World of Sports is ideal—it has a bunch of facilities we can use day in and day out with live events. We’ll cover everything from billiards to main ball-and-stick-type sports. Nothing’s off-limits, because we are the total sports network.

Is more of your work done in the lab or on the fields and courts?

It’s 50-50 now. They’ll work in the lab to set up systems, but recently they set up outside the lab for Pop Warner to derive test data for the Snap Zoom system. Sometimes we like to use the fields when no one is there—like for EA Madden virtual shoots.

What’s the most popular technology you’ve created?

EA Sports Virtual Playbook. It won a George Wensel Technical Emmy last year. It’s really changed the way we do pre-game analysis of what players are going to see and gets the fan into the head of a quarterback or Kobe Bryant. In the past we could tell you why a player is doing something, now we can show you. It allows our analysts to dive deep into why certain decisions are made.

What does the lab look like, and what’s going on there now?

It’s pretty state-of-the-art. We have 3-D rigs and monitors. We’ve used the lab to do our entire EA Virtual Playbook/on-air shooting. We’re working on the EA Virtual Playbook for the World Cup. We’ve worked on refining our Ultimate Uplink—a hologram–type system. We’re working on player tracking for baseball using a multitude of different technologies. We’ll test out anything that has a future on our air.

How long does it take to develop an on-air product?

Virtual Playbook took about a year before it hit air. Snap Zoom took about three weeks.

Is it more like, here’s an idea, let’s use the technology we have and make it work, or is it more like figuring out one day, “Hey, this is cool, I think this could work!”

It’s a little of both. EA Madden was fooling around and, “Hey, I think this could work,” and Snap Zoom was, “Here’s the idea, let’s figure this out.” But tinkering and coming up with the idea doesn’t take as long as figuring out the work flow in a live work environment.

Will you be open to the public?

Once a quarter we’ll have an open house and invite people on the complex to walk through. We will utilize those opportunities to do have a focus group—what do you think? Do you like it? The next one will be during ESPN The Weekend, February 25-28.

Who is more interested in the lab and your creations—kids or grown-ups?

Funny you say that. Anytime there’s a big event, kids are at the door, staring in, wanting to be part of it, but they also kind of expect it. The grown-ups are more wowed by it and fascinated by what we’re doing.

Check out a sample of the EA Sports Virtual Playbook application below.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com


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