Good news, Man City fans: You can watch your team lose the title in on-demand 3D
And from all different angles you want
Intel Capital One of the most maddening aspects of live sports may not just disappear in the next two years but may actually become, well, awesome.
Unless you are lucky enough to have season tickets for your favorite team, thanks to the mosaic of contracts and agreements that exist around live footage, it can often be hours or days before you get to see that mind-blowing, game-winning goal for yourself from the angle you want.
But thanks to new technology being installed in stadiums in both the US and UK, and the expiration of existing content contracts in 2021, it is possible that not only will you be able to instantly re-watch a 40-yard successful shot on goal or 80-yard touchdown pass but decide which angle you want to watch it from. On your phone. Instantly.
That's the vision outlined by Intel at the annual conference of its investment arm in Arizona, USA, this week.
What the hell has sports got to do with Intel? Well, the chip giant has made live sports a key part of its strategy for the simple reason that sports in one of the few markets where there is the willingness - and the money – to invest in cutting-edge technology as it relates to image capture.
Intel has has installed the camera system in the last two Superbowl stadiums in the US and has now announced it'll be going into three UK premiership club stadiums: Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City (also, and not coincidentally, the top three in the league right now).
If you have watched the Superbowl recently, you may recall an occasional Matrix-like spin around key plays where you can see what happened in frozen motion, or the view from the quarterback's perspective just before he threw the ball. You can see examples in this video.
It's Intel system that makes that happen. And it isn't simple, and it isn't cheap but it may be the future of live sports.
To make it work, 38 cameras are installed around the edges of the stadium – either on a balcony or the roof – and live feeds from each of them, producing terabytes of data every minute, are fed (with fiber optic cables) into a server farm where they are processed and used to create a 3D map of the action.
Intel creates that map and then charts a course of a virtual floating camera through it to capture the action – which can then be output as a video.
The system is getting better. The man in charge, general manager of Intel Sports James Carwana, told El Reg that a few years ago it took 90 seconds from the time the action took place until the system was able to process it all and provide a virtual camera video. That is now down to 20 seconds – which means that video producers doing events like the Superbowl are able to use it to greater effect.
The goal is to get the time down further to a tenth of a second – at which point you will be able live stream events. And that's when things will really explode. Commentators and video producers and even you at home will be able to watch the game in whatever way you want.
You want to spend the whole game following Liverpool's Mo Salah, waiting for him to finally score (it's been seven games, Mo!) – you can do that. Or if you fancy watching Tottenham's Toby Alderweireld's 90-minute own goal on repeat – off you go. [I'm seeing a common theme here; we may have a Reds supporter – Ed.]
The reality, Carwana tell us, is that no one expects fans to continually act as their own game editor – they will follow the video feed created by the pros at the stadium and then "lean in" and select their own view when something interesting happens.
But from there of course, the possibilities explode: people putting together their own videos of their favourite players or goals or teams from different angles. Suddenly the replay function that has become so popular in gaming – Fornite being perhaps the best example (and here's just one) – can apply to live sports. Match of the Day will never be the same. And in a good way.
But, of course, there is the tricky issue of rights and rights holders. Intel's Carwana is diplomatic when it comes to the madness that is live sports rights but he does point out that most sports rights are up for renewal in 2021 and 2022.
That means that if Intel can keep improving its technology and make the case for its next-gen 3D virtual cam system, we may see a fundamental shift in how live sports content works: from highly restrictive to anything goes.
Would you pay £5 a month to be able to watch your team however you want whenever you want? Even if the answer is no for you, you can bet there are many, many fans for who the answer will be: where do I provide my credit card details? (Incidentally, we have no idea what the actual cost would be, even if it does happen.)
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Even if the current status quo continues on and exclusive contracts are drawn up with single companies, the tech should still mean a new level of immersiveness and creativity. And the 2021 contract renewal, combined with the slowing improving tech that will soon be in three Premiership stadiums, means it could all be with us as soon as the season after next.
It is of course worth noting that Formula 1's effort to offer a similar approach through its own streaming service has not been a huge success. Currently it charges $80 a year or $10 a month in the US for access to live race streams (with strangely varying prices and services for other counties – no doubt thanks to the web of content contracts) which sounds like a good deal for F1 fans but hasn't set the world on fire.
But football (both American and soccer) – and basketball and baseball and cricket and so on - are different animals in that the pitch is fixed and the people move within it, which makes image capture simpler and the virtual camera possible.
In short, if you're a sports fan this looks like a lot of fun. And it's on its way. ®
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