ESPN Debuts ‘Front Row Cam’ on Sunday Night Baseball
The mirror-based robotic system, co-developed with VER, replicates the long-lost low-home position for MLB coverage
Baseball fans pining for the days of dramatic tight shots of legendary pitchers staring down opposing hitters courtesy of the classic low-home camera position are in luck. ESPN’s new mirror-based robotic Front Row Cam system, developed in conjunction with VER and introduced during July 2’s Sunday Night Baseball telecast in St. Louis, aims to bring the low-home position, which gradually disappeared over the past two decades in favor of premium ballpark seating, back to live MLB telecasts.
“One of the biggest things missing [in current MLB coverage] was the low-home camera, [lost to] seats over the last 20 or so years,” says Phil Orlins, senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s MLB coverage. “So many memorable images of Clemens, Gooden, Johnson, Maddux, and on and on. We remember the great tight shots of their intense faces staring in at the hitter and the great super-slo-mo of their pitches.
“I told Steve [Raymond, senior technical specialist, ESPN Remote Production Operations] that, if we could ever develop a small robotic-camera option that could provide the tight shot of the pitcher’s face and super-slo-mo and be acceptable on the field, it would be great for baseball coverage,” he continues. “But it would need to be small and fit alongside the advertising signage behind home plate.”
The Guts of the Front Row Cam
Raymond came up with the concept of building a camera in a cylinder aimed skyward and shooting the image off a mirror. He worked with VER Director, Global Camera Operations, Patrick Campbell, who played an integral role in innovating mirror-based camera systems as Cameron-Pace Group CTO during the 3D–sports-production boom of the early 2010s, to create a system with a small enough footprint to serve ESPN’s needs.
Measuring 16 in. wide x 16 in. deep x 32 in. high, the system features a Sony HDC-P43 camera equipped with a Fujinon HA42x13.5 lens. The camera chain comprises a Sony BPU-4000 baseband processor unit (with high-frame-rate license), HDCU-2500 CCU, and RCP1500 remote-control panel inside the truck. The 6X slo-mo replays are handled by an EVS XT3 replay server. The entire system runs on two fibers into a Sony HKCU-SM100 CCU extension adaptor.
The Front Row Cam system also features a VER pan-and-tilt controller for the robo operator and a VER 3D-printed pan-and-tilt housing, which uses ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) material and was printed by a Stratasys Fortus 900mc 3D printer (taking more than 200 hours of printing time).
“We will continue to make software tweaks and mechanical tweaks, but, overall, [ESPN] seems happy with the size,” says Campbell. “From the tip of the lens to the bottom of the camera with the fiber-optic connectors coming out the bottom, there’s not a millimeter to spare. So now we’re working to tweak the external form factor being inside of a box to make it more seamless in the field of play.”
Development of the Front Row Cam
Orlins and Raymond say they have been searching for a viable replacement tool for the low-home camera position that could be approved by Major League Baseball for several years, but to no avail.
“We played around with a number of different solutions to improve that shot of the pitcher from home plate — including 4K cameras, bigger lenses, electronic zoom — but we found quickly that none of those technologies were as effective as optical zoom to give us what we wanted,” says Raymond. “And a lot of those [technologies] made the size of the package pretty ungainly.”
However, near the end of the 2016 MLB regular season, Raymond came up with the mirror-based concept and presented it to Orlins, who was intrigued. Raymond enlisted Campbell to build a mockup of the system featuring a cardboard tube with a 3D-printed mock head on it, a piece of glass as the physical representation of the mirror, and a Sony F-55 4K camera with a 42X lens. Orlins signed off on the concept shortly after seeing it, and VER kicked off the project in October.
The first prototype was deployed during 2017 Spring Training in March at the Texas Rangers’ Surprise Stadium in Phoenix. It featured a wider-angle 42×9.6 lens, which meant that the mirror and, therefore, the overall footprint had to be larger.
“It was determined that the first prototype used in March was just too [big],” says Campbell. “So, for the second prototype, we went back to the tighter version with the 42×13.5 lens that we had originally, which made everything smaller again.”
ESPN and VER also worked closely with the production team to ensure that they were getting the optimum value from the system and creating the smallest possible package size.
“Once we had a prototype, in an effort to reduce the size of the camera, we sat down with our directors and figured out the operating parameters for the tightest possible [shot] they would need and the widest they would ever need,” says Raymond. “Once we knew those benchmarks, we went back and determined the maximum image circle that would ever be seen off the mirror and made the mirror as small as possible, thereby reducing the size of the overall [system]. We determined the optimum use model for the director and figured out what that translated to in physical-size requirements.
Front Cam Goes Live, But Development Continues
The system officially debuted on ESPN’s Washington Nationals-St. Louis Cardinals SNB telecast at Busch Stadium last Sunday. Orlins expects the system to make its second appearance for the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox SNB telecast at Fenway Park.
“It’s been a long development process figuring out the size, the mirrors, lenses, and everything,” he says. “We were pleased [with Front Row Cam in St. Louis]. Not perfect but pretty close, and the camera function is quite good.”
Although ESPN is hoping the Front Row Cam will become a standard element of its Sunday Night Baseball telecasts, development and tweaking of the system will continue in the effort to serve ESPN’s production needs while also abiding by MLB regulations.
“It’s an ongoing process even now,” says Raymond. “I wouldn’t say we’ve perfected it yet, and we’re still working to find a final design that everyone will be happy with. That said, we’ve managed to overcome the major hurdles that were part of this project, and we are confident that we can come up with something that will make people happy.”