As an archery contender at the Summer Olympics lines up a shot, an American TV viewer sits squarely in the bull’s-eye. When the arrows fly in Beijing, the view from tiny high-definition cameras is sure to jolt some folks right out of their recliners.
With the Olympics set to start Aug. 8, NBC is gearing up to provide 3,600 hours of coverage from 35 venues with nearly 1,100 HD cameras and an arsenal of digital gadgets that will not only make the games more fun to watch, but simpler to grasp.
“For us, it’s all about making sports easier to understand,” says David Neal, NBC’s executive vice president in charge of Olympics coverage. “But the best technical innovations are the ones that take the viewer on a magic carpet ride. They transport the television viewer out of their easy chair at home and give them a sense of what it’s like to be on the field of play.”
Neal recalls watching ABC’s Olympics coverage in the 1960s and ’70s and being fascinated by the technical innovations of the day, many of which were implemented by the legendary ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge.
“I remember as a kid watching and saying, `Wow — how do they do that?’ The Olympics were always the showcases for all of the newest technology. Roone set the gold standard.”
Among the cool gadgets to be used by NBC in Beijing is the Dive-Cam, which consists of an HD camera that moves down a clear plastic tube, plunging alongside a diver as the athlete leaves the diving platform, and hitting the water at the precise moment as the diver.
Neal and another producer, Tommy Roy, devised the contraption on the back of a cocktail napkin. “We were trying to figure out how you can capture the madness of someone getting on a 10-meter platform and actually thinking that it’s a good idea to dive off that thing, three stories up, and go into the water,” he recalls.
Like many such innovations, the Dive-Cam was put together by celebrated camera inventor Garrett Brown, creator of the widely used Steadicam floating camera system.
“Garrett’s sort of like the Doc Brown character in the ‘Back to the Future’ movies,” Neal says.
Brown also helped create the Moby-Cam, a small, submarine-mounted camera that tracks swimmers from below, as it rides unobtrusively along the black lane stripe at the bottom of the pool. “You see these unusual, Botticelli-like images of the swimmers,” Brown describes. “These systems allow the viewer to see sights that have not been seen before, that are just ravishing.”
Special camera heads will help viewers keep better track of swimmers by superimposing athletes’ names on the action.
The Fly-Cam, another Garrett Brown invention, will be used to follow rowers and kayakers while suspended on a cable above the athletes as they paddle along their water course. “It’s like you’re in your own little airplane, flying along with these guys, giving you a sense of their power and speed,” Brown says.
The network will also put to use a number of virtual enhancements, using GPS positioning and digital course maps to help keep viewers informed. Says Neal: “Instead of describing the course verbally, we’ll use this mapping technology — something which today is instantly recognizable by consumers — to give a clear picture.”
But most fun, perhaps, are the “point-of-view” shots taken by tiny HD “lipstick cameras” that place viewers right in the game alongside the athletes.
“There’s a camera embedded in the weightlifting platform, shooting up through glass, to give you a ‘bottoms up’ look at a weightlifter,” Neal explains. Others are located throughout the game venues, covering competitions such as field hockey, team handball and the high jump, where such a camera will be placed atop the crossbar itself.
“With lead athletes, the difference between clearing the bar and just brushing it can be a question of millimeters. Having that lipstick camera there can mean the difference between getting a medal and maybe not,” Neal explains, noting the audience’s ability to see just why an athlete failed to win a medal, thanks to the vantage point of the tiny cameras.
But using such technology provides more than a “wow factor,” Neal says.
“Our mantra here is storytelling. We not only want to demystify a sport for the American audience, but we want to engage our audience in these sports,” he says. “We can use the technology to make the sport easily understood. If we’re really at the top of our craft, we’ll engage viewers and get them to care about the athletes.”