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CMU experts helping CBS's 30 robotic cameras to work as one

Action from every angle

Wednesday, January 24, 2001

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

The New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens will be playing in the Super Bowl Sunday, but at times during CBS's telecast it might seem as if the players are in a scene from "The Matrix."

During a replay of a Kerry Collins pass, for instance, wide receiver Amani Toomer might be frozen in mid-air as the camera seems to fly around him, letting viewers check every angle to see if he had both feet in bounds as he caught the ball.

It's the same type of three-dimensional effect that makes Keanu Reeves seem to float in "Matrix" fight scenes and dancers appear to stop in mid-leap and shift directions in Gap commercials. Now CBS Sports, with help from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, has found a way to replicate this effect on video, on the football field and on the fly.

The technology, which CBS calls EyeVision and will be spun off as a separate business, will be unveiled during Sunday's broadcast.

Between 30 and 33 robotic cameras will be positioned along the upper deck of Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, about 80 feet above the field. They'll be spaced along one sideline, around the end zone and up part of the opposite sideline, providing a 270-degree view of the action.

A technician will control one of the cameras. The other cameras will automatically follow the cue of the master camera, focusing on the same piece of action, such as a player running down the field. Each camera will constantly adjust its zoom and focus to keep the image of the player the same size as in the images of all the other cameras.

This shared center of focus is what creates the illusion that the player can be seen in three dimensions, said Takeo Kanade, director of the Robotics Institute and a computer vision expert. When images taken at the same time by each camera are viewed sequentially, the effect is of walking or flying around the player.

"We're all going to find out how well it works on Sunday," said Brown Williams, chairman of Princeton Video Image, a partner with CBS in a new business that will market EyeVision to other broadcasters. "It will be a proof of principle," he added, noting the entire system has never been used in a game. "I think it will be a spectacular proof of principle."

The technology could be used in any number of sports, including hockey, basketball, baseball, tennis and soccer, said Scott Barker, chief executive officer of Core Digital Technologies, another partner in EyeVision.

Ken Aagaard, senior vice president for operations at CBS Sports, said the idea for EyeVision goes back about 18 months, when he asked a couple of his engineers to come up with a gee-whiz idea for the Super Bowl broadcast.

"As usually occurs with engineers, they went off to a bar to get some drinks," he said. "When they came back, they had all this stuff sketched out on cocktail napkins."

That began a long effort to translate the idea into hardware.

"Most of the engineering was done by CBS," Aagaard said, but "we knew we were going to need help with robotics."

That brought CBS to Kanade.

"We found him on the Internet," Aagaard said.

"They certainly knew what they wanted to do," recalled Kanade of his meeting with Aagaard and his colleagues last spring. "But they didn't know how to do it. By the end of the meeting, I was convinced I knew how."

In fact, the EyeVision system is a less ambitious version of an idea that Kanade had been pursuing for years, something he calls "virtualized reality."

His hope is to use a large number of video cameras to capture images of an event and then translate the information from those images into a three-dimensional computer model. People could interact through a computer with this virtualized reality, enabling them to watch a basketball game as if they were floating above the basket, or listen to an orchestra concert as if they were sitting next to the first violin.

Kanade has used a room outfitted with almost 50 video cameras to test some of his ideas. But his vision requires more computing power than is practical today.

"My vision was too much," he said, noting many people scoffed when he tried to explain it.

Kanade and his group began working on the EyeVision system in mid-July.

"It's been a very short-fused project," said research scientist Robert Collins, who designed the software that allows the cameras to automatically point at the same spot and to adjust their zoom and focus.

"Things came together pretty well," he said, because many of the software problems had already been solved for virtualized reality. "It's not way out beyond the bounds of what we normally do."

One of the biggest challenges in adapting it to something the size of a stadium was the hardware necessary to point the cameras precisely. The pan/tilt mounts used for security cameras simply don't provide adequate control, so Kanade turned to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which adapted a robotic arm normally used to build automobiles.

Only in the past few weeks have all the camera mounts been delivered. But a 10-camera version of the system was tested Dec. 23 during the N.Y. Giants-Jacksonville Jaguars game at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

Before that test, the plan had been to array 30 cameras all the way around the stadium to provide a 360-degree view of the action. But Collins said the December test showed that the cameras ended up spaced too far apart, resulting in a jerky "fly-by" image during replay. So the decision was made to space the 30 cameras closer together -- at 6- or 7-degree intervals, rather than 12-degree intervals.

Carnegie Mellon officials would not say how much CBS paid for the work or for licensing the university's technology for EyeVision. The university will receive a couple of 30-second commercials during this year's NCAA basketball tournament, Kanade said.

Despite all the hoopla, Aagaard said he's not sure how many times EyeVision will be used Sunday.

"I'd be happy if we used it for three or four plays," he said. With another 40 cameras assigned to the game and the pre-game show, "almost everything is covered." EyeVision, he added, " is icing on the cake."

"People shouldn't expect to be completely and totally knocked out the first time it's used," cautioned Sean McManus, CBS Sports president, during a telephone press briefing yesterday.

Williams, of Princeton Video Image, the company that produces the digitized first-down lines used during CBS's football telecasts, said this is only the first step in the system's development. His company will be working to streamline its design and operation and adding bells and whistles.

Eventually, he said, the system might be used to track more than one player on the field. It might be used to create a video game that reconstructs where everyone moves on the field.

Kanade, who is in Tampa, Fla., to oversee the system and explain the operation of EyeVision during Sunday's pregame show, hopes for even bigger things.

"In a sense," he added, "this could be a beachhead into my whole vision of virtualized reality."

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