A few days ago, I ran across this article at 4k.com with the enticing title, “Super Bowl LI to be Shot in Stunning 4K and 8K with 360 Degree Views.” Does that mean football fans can actually see the Super Bowl in 4K or even 8K, and perhaps in VR? Sadly, no. It means that there will be 38 4K and 8K cameras around the perimeter of the field to capture the action across 360 degrees in Ultra HD and high frame rate, allowing super-sharp, after-the-fact zoom-ins and slo-mo. But the broadcast on Fox will be in 720p resolution. Another 32 HD cameras will be used as well, including 24 mounted on the end-zone pylons, for a total of 70 cameras.
To be fair, there is no such thing as 4K/UHD—or even 1080p—over-the-air broadcasting yet; that will have to wait until ATSC 3.0 is finalized and deployed, probably next year at the earliest. It could be made available via online streaming or even satellite delivery, but as far as I can determine, that’s not going to happen this year.
One new feature that Fox will be offering this year is something called “Be the Player,” which, it is said, will let viewers “get inside the helmet of any player on the field.” Again, this enticed and confused me. Does it mean that the players will all be wearing tiny cameras and viewers will be able to select which player’s point of view they want to see? No; all the cameras around the field will let the producers create a “virtual” camera effect that simulates the perspective of individual players, as depicted in the photo above.
This will happen as close to live as possible, so the technology—which is provided by Intel—will be used only for the biggest plays of the game. Apparently, the system requires about 1 terabyte of storage per 30-second “Be the Player” clip, and it takes about two minutes to prepare the clip for broadcast, so most of them will be aired after a commercial break. To acquire all that data, the video feeds from all the cameras must run through five miles of fiber-optic cable.
“With the NFL and most other sports, we’re used to seeing replays and on-field action being broadcast from the outside in,” says Michael Davies, senior vice president of field and technical operations at Fox Sports. “But the ambition has always been to get those perspectives from the inside out. With ‘Be the Player’ and some other enhancements we’re utilizing this year, such as pylon cameras, we’ll be able to bring the audience down to the field and offer the viewpoint of a player at the critical decision-making moment.”
Davies goes on to explain why UHD cameras will offer advantages even though the broadcast will not be in UHD. “The ability to capture a quarterback’s reaction to an evolving situation on the field, or the grimace of a sideline coach after a call, can heighten the emotional impact of the game for viewers. It’s always best to start with the highest-quality source material you can get.” I couldn’t agree more.