Winter X Games Live: ESPN Back Aboard Innovation Train in Aspen
This year’s advances include use of Intel’s Curie sensors, 4K/HDR testing, and rebranded GoPro camera system
ESPN is back in Aspen this week for the 20th edition of Winter X Games. Not surprisingly, the network has once again rolled out plenty of bleeding-edge tech and next-gen production workflows.
Although the debut of Intel’s Curie sensors for the Men’s Snowboard Big Air and Slopestyle is generating lots of buzz, ESPN has many more tech toys on tap, including 4K/HDR testing onsite, the Winter X debut of Sony HDC-4300 cameras, and the return of live GoPro/Vislink RF POV cameras, which debuted in Aspen last year. In addition, the Winter X operations team continues to cultivate REMI at-home production and EVS Portal/file-transfer techniques that it helped create and now deploys across several ESPN properties.
“A lot of stuff starts here in terms of technology and innovation,” says Paul DiPietro, coordinating director, event operations, ESPN. “The beauty of owning and running our own event is that we basically have free rein to test new technology.”
In all, ESPN will produce 24 hours of live coverage (16 on ESPN and ABC and eight on ESPN3) from Aspen; the X Games Extra Presented by Skype late-night show is being televised on ESPN2 for the time after previously only being streamed on XGames.com.
For more from Winter X Games:
Intel Curie Sensors Offer Viewers Deep Real-Time Data
As Winter X Games Grow, So Does the Sound
Sony HDC-4300, Live GoPro RF Cams Headline Camera Complement
ESPN has deployed more than 30 manned cameras at more than 100 locations, along with 13 Fletcher-provided robos throughout Buttermilk Mountain and four robotic booth cameras in the off-tube announce booths in the compound.
Two Sony HDC-4300 cameras — one each for Venue A and Venue B — are on hand, running at 4X and 6X slo-mo depending on whether it is a day or night event. In addition, ESPN is running several Sony HDC-2500s in 2X-slo-mo mode.
The debut of GoPro’s live RF POV camera (using Vislink’s transmitter) in Aspen last year drew plenty of attention from viewers, who were able to see athletes’ POV live for the first time. Rebranded GoPro HeroCast, the system is back this week with 16 units on hand in tether (camera and transmitter on opposite sides of an athlete’s helmet) or backpack (transmitter in backpack). HeroCast is also used for FollowCam-style selfie-stick shots and for course descriptions.
“The RF GoPros added a wrinkle that elevated the product like no other over the past few years,” says X Games Senior Coordinating Producer Amy Rosenfeld. “The fact that we can do that live really took it to the next level. We are deploying that even more into the coverage after learning how to utilize it last year. Our partnership with GoPro is so strong that we are working together to figure out what worked last year and how we can elevate it.”
BSI (Broadcast Sports Inc.) has upgraded three FollowCam systems with new imagers based on the on-board/in-car cameras it provides for its auto-racing coverage. These systems have also been outfitted with a wider lens this year.
Also included in ESPN’s camera arsenal are a SuperCrane (135 ft. in the air at the SnoCross course) and three RF handheld cameras (provided by BSI).
ESPN’s Super Group: NEP’s EN1 and EN2 Join Forces
ESPN also packs a powerful punch in the compound this week with two of NEP’s elite mobile units — EN1 and EN2 — working together for the first time ever. ESPN has once again split the operation in two venues, with EN1 handling Venue A (Slopestyle, SuperPipe, Big Air, and Special Olympics) and EN2 handling Venue B (SnoCross and X Course).
With a total of six trailers on hand (EN1 A, B, D, and E and EN2 A and B) and state-of-the art infrastructure in place, ESPN moved several portions of the operation that would previously have been located in office trailers into the production units, including TOC operations, robotic-camera control, and the Visual Technology group.
“We didn’t have these types or size of trucks in the past,” says ESPN Operations Producer Jon Winders. “But now that we have these massive trucks with lots of firepower, it makes sense to use the infrastructure that’s been provided to us. And the best thing is that everything is interconnected so easily via fiber and they work together perfectly. All the trucks parked, they got power, connected via fiber, and everything was immediately interconnected.”
Bleeding-Edge Imaging Update: 4K and HDR In, Drones Out
Always the testing ground for up-and-coming technology, X Games is serving as test bed for ESPN’s exploration of 4K and HDR production tools. ESPN has deployed a team onsite using multiple camera systems to capture 4K video at variable frame rates and HDR footage in order to conduct comparative-viewing tests later.
“X Games has always been an event where we can test and explore new and evolving technologies, and this year is no different,” says ESPN EVP/CTO Aaron LaBerge. “We’re excited to continue testing next-generation video formats and cameras, such as 4K and UHD, as a part of that.”
While 4K and HDR undergo testing in Aspen, one next-gen production element that debuted at the 2015 Winter X Games is absent this year: drones. ESPN’s use of a drone to cover a handful of events last year marked the first legal deployment of a drone for live sports coverage in North America. However, the network declined to deploy a drone this year. According to Rosenfeld, the decision was made well before a drone crashed and nearly hit Austrian skier Marcel Hirscher during the Madonna di Campiglio in Italy in December and had more to do with a better allocation of resources than with concern over safety.
“The thinking was that we really wanted to put as much weight behind the areas where we could be the most impactful, which we believe is the partnership with Intel and developing the GoPro RF experience,” says Rosenfeld. “It really was a matter of deploying resources to other areas.”
Intel Curie Joins the ESPN Visual Technology Party
Winter X Games is using Intel’s new Curie sensor modules on Snowboard Big Air and Slopestyle to provide viewers with real-time data for speed, height, distance, air-time, flip, rotation, g-force, landing impact, and more. Click here for SVG’s story on how ESPN Visual Technology and Intel are deploying the Curie system.
In addition to Curie, ESPN Visual Technology has brought back two virtual-graphics elements that have become standard at X Games are back once again: the Huck Tower and ART enhanced replay.
The Huck Tower, a 30-ft.-high LED tower, allows the Visual Technology team to insert graphics that display the height of each jump live and during replays. Five small-form-factor cameras are placed and calibrated down each side of the SuperPipe. Via proprietary software, the athlete is identified, isolated, and tracked for the entire run. In addition to viewers’ seeing this information graphically, the height data is displayed in real time on the Huck Tower for onsite viewers.
The ART systems works with the onsite EVS replay infrastructure for quick turnaround of enhanced replay clips, including animated-graphics insertion, telestrations, sequential playouts, zoom and highlighting, chromakeying, and direct control of a video server.
Aspen to Bristol: Making 2,000 Miles Feel Like Next Door
Although at-home production and file-based workflows between the remote and the broadcast center are becoming commonplace for ESPN, it was at X Games that these production models were first undertaken. That continues this year. Aspen and ESPN’s Bristol, CT, broadcast center are connected via dual 1-Gbps fiber paths. This allows ESPN to share content back and forth via its EVS portal system (leaving the bulk of features/craft-edit operations in Bristol) and to send feeds so that the final X Games telecast can be integrated at home.
The dual 1-Gbps pipes carry nine outgoing paths from Aspen to Bristol (clean program, dirty program, and non-sponsored program feeds from Venue A and Venue B, EVS sects, a beauty camera, and the camera from ESPN’s host/SportsCenter set) and five return feeds from Bristol to Aspen (EVS edit, production-control room, production-control room iso, non-sponsored world feed, switchable Bristol).
In addition, for the first time, ESPN International’s operation in Aspen is feeding all its content to Bristol via TVU Networks bonded-cellular systems.
On the Road to Norway
X Games is set to dip its toe in international waters for the first time since the residence of Global X Games in 2013. X Games Oslo begins in Norway next month but will be markedly different from the ESPN-produced editions in Barcelona, Munich, Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, and Tignes, France: Norwegian broadcaster TV2 will handle all production operations, and ESPN will serve solely as an advisor.
“We will really just be a consultant; TV2 will be running the show,” says DiPietro. “They came to Aspen and Austin [last year], and they are here this week. We are showing them the ropes so [the event] looks virtually identical in terms of graphics and music and so on.”