NBC Sunday Night Football Debuts SMT Virtual Yard Markers To Combat Mile-High Snowstorm

As several inches of snow began to accumulate on the turf at Sports Authority Field at Mile High during Sunday’s New England Patriots-Denver Broncos showdown, NBC Sunday Night Football viewers found it more and more difficult to decipher the teams’ field positions. Midway through the third quarter, with the snow rendering on-field yard markers nearly unreadable, NBC turned to SMT’s (SportsMEDIA Technology) virtual-yard-marker technology to graphically inform fans of the teams’ respective positions on the field.

WATCH: Click image for video of SMT's virtual-yard-marker technology in action on NBC Sunday Night Football.

WATCH: Click image for video of SMT’s virtual-yard-marker technology in action on NBC Sunday Night Football.

“We really love when our virtual technology can add something meaningful to an event like this,” says Hans Weber, VP of R&D, SMT. “It wasn’t intrusive or distracting. It provided some real context, and you could see immediately when they turned it on that it helped the viewer. It was hard to see [the yardage markers] otherwise with all the snow: were they on the 35 or the 45? I think having the virtual numbers, hash marks, and sidelines truly added to the production and viewer experience.”

Ten Years in the Making
Although the decision to deploy SMT’s virtual yard markers was an on-the-fly call by SNF producer Fred Gaudelli and his team on Sunday, the technology’s debut actually was a decade in the making. SMT — which also provides SNF with clock-and-score and real-time statistics (powered by SMT’s QB Stat system), real-time on-screen graphics (including the line of scrimmage and 1st-and-10 line), and Commentator Information Systems (real-time and historical stats for show hosts) — began developing a basic version of the virtual–yard-marker technology for a potential whiteout football game 10 years ago.

Five years later, in December 2010, Gaudelli came calling with heavy snowstorms expected for a high-profile Patriots-Packers SNF matchup.

“Fred called up and asked for [virtual] numbers, hash marks, sidelines, and end zones [to appear] on the field,” says Weber. “Previously, we had just shown all the five-yard-line markers, but we were able to quickly implement the features he asked for. They didn’t end up needing it that weekend since the weather didn’t develop, but, ever since, it has been in our set of tools that clients can use.”

SMART Thinking
The virtual yard markers are based on SMT’s SMART (SportsMedia Augmented Reality Technology) systems located onsite. SMT engineers configure cameras with specialized pan heads that pull data from the camera’s pan-and-tilt sensors and from encoders that obtain zoom and focus values to calibrate the virtual yard markers, the same technology used for its other virtual products, including the first-down line, line of scrimmage, and down-and-distance arrows.

“With our SMART system in place, we have the ability to draw any part of the field at any point in time that we need to; it is just a matter of developing a model of the field with all the elements in the right places, having the font and hash markers appropriately sized and positioned to make sure you have an accurate NFL model. It’s a feature we prepare ahead of time and they can access anytime they need to.”

A Glowing Denver Debut
On Sunday, as snow coated the Mile High turf, Gaudelli knew he had the SMT virtual yard markers in his back pocket and elected to deploy the technology for the first time midway through the third quarter. Since the SMT team onsite had already prepared the virtual elements, it had only to clear the color, size, and opacity of the graphics with the NBC production team and check the necessary boxes within the application (hash marks, numbers, sidelines, end lines, goal lines, etc.), and the virtual yard markers were ready to go live.

“It’s been something that we have talked about for a long time, and, every weekend that it starts to snow, we wonder if that will be the weekend. So it was great on Sunday when NBC came back in the third quarter and Al Michaels introduced it on-air,” says Weber. “The response onsite was very positive, and there was instantly a buzz around it. It’s very exciting when our technology can help the viewer much better understand the game and add some context.”

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