ESPN Emerging Technology Returns to Winter X Games With Enhanced Bag of Tricks

The X Games have always served as a breeding ground for ESPN’s new bleeding-edge production technologies and workflows, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the Emerging Technology trailer at the ESPN Winter X Games compound in Aspen, CO, last week.

Like many of the units on ESPN’s production team, Emerging Tech moved a portion of its on-site operations back to the network’s Bristol, CT, headquarters this year, although plenty of innovative new technologies were still on display on-site.

“We moved seven people back to Bristol this year, but, of all the groups out here, we are probably one of the least affected [by the on-site–staff decrease],” says VP, ESPN Emerging Technology, Anthony Bailey. “Since we are involved with the live scoring system, we have to be here. We talked about potential ways of doing it [in Bristol], but we didn’t want to bring in new techniques and ideas the first year of Global X. So we will probably ease certain functions back to Bristol next year and then more the following year and so on.”

Scoring System Hits Its Groove
With an international expansion on the horizon, ESPN took its competition-scoring system in-house beginning at last year’s Winter X Games (SMT previously served as the vendor), and it continues to evolve and become more efficient each year.

“We did do a new look [for the scoring system] this year,” says Chris Cokas, manager, SIG X Games, ESPN Emerging Technology. “It’s our third new look since we started, and we were looking to have everything wrapped together — including our Vizrt interface — so everything matches.”

The redesigned scoring system is tied in directly to and the various X Games mobile apps (including WatchESPN) to allow live results and updates online, along with a similar visual look.

“We’ve also automated and redesigned a lot of the online elements and apps,” says Cokas. “It’s all connected into WatchESPN and links to your Twitter and Facebook accounts and all that. We are looking for full integration with all of these [platforms].”

VFX Goes Global
After years of development and refinement, ESPN’s Neartime Virtual Effects (VFX) were deployed on the widest scale to date during Winter X Games telecasts. The VFX system (now located in Bristol after previously being on-site) allows ESPN to insert life-like 3D virtual graphics that naturally blend in with the Aspen environment, such as a 3D sponsor logo painted onto the mountain or an X Games billboard on one of the courses.

“VFX has really evolved to the point where production people are more comfortable with it and we are much more efficient as well,” says Marina Escobar, senior director, creative technology, ESPN Emerging Technology. “But the larger role that VFX is going to take on really affects the sponsorship side of things.”

The valuable sponsorship opportunities provided by the VFX system creates have excited ESPN the most. ESPN is able to customize international feeds with specific VFX elements to different markets. For Winter X this year, Spain, Germany, and Brazil (the three new hosts of X Games events in 2013) each received a customized feed complete with VFX graphics that cater to their respective cultures and markets.

“VFX is going to bring the culture aspect to the forefront of X Games,” says Bailey. “When we sent our VFX crews out to get beauty shots, we sent them during a [non-X Games] event that was going on in those cities. So people will see Munich and Barcelona very different than you would with a typical beauty shot.”

Huck Tower Stands Tall
The Huck Tower, a 30-ft.-high LED tower that has become a staple of both Summer and Winter X Games, was back again in Aspen. While the LED tower catered to fans on-site, ESPN Emerging Technology’s video tracking system captured the height of every SuperPipe jump and displayed the info graphically to viewers both live and in replay.

The video tracking system was composed of 10 small HD cameras, with five positioned and calibrated down each side of the SuperPipe. Using proprietary software, the Emerging Technology team identified, isolated, and tracked athletes through their entire run. The height data was then displayed in real time on the Huck Tower and to viewers at home.

This year, a MultiDyne unit allowed ESPN Emerging Technology to compress and transmit all 10 signals back to the trailer over a single fiber, vastly simplifying the fiber infrastructure at the venue.

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