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Technology Gives Audience New View of Olympics


So you decided not to make the trip to the Italian Alps, to stand in the cold, wait in long lines and watch the action at the Winter Games in person. Well, watching the Olympics on TV may not exactly feel like standing on a mountainside, but you also have some advantages over the folks in the stands.

Hank Adams, the CEO of Sportvision, a company that provides some of the TV magic that makes it easier to understand what you're watching. He joins us now to talk about some of this year's features and let's start with that simul-cam feature. We saw it last night in the coverage of the men's downhill. How does it work?

HANK ADAMS: Well, what the program does is it takes two video sequences and composites them into one video sequence, overlaid one over the other, and so all the background that you see, the slopes, the flags, etc stay the same. What's different is you get the effect of two skiers coming down the slope at the same time. One has just been overlaid on the other one.

NORRIS: So it's almost like a hologram, a ghost competitor is on the course.

ADAMS: Right, exactly, and the big advantage of it is, of course, that you can watch how the skiers have skied the slope in different ways and what effects that has on their performance ultimately.

NORRIS: Now I understand that the first time they tried this out in Salt Lake City it freaked a lot of people out.

ADAMS: It did. As a matter of fact, NBC apparently got a number of phone calls from some very alarmed viewers who said, they're running two people on the ski slope at the same time, do you think that's safe, isn't that dangerous.

NORRIS: I guess there are points also where they look like they'd probably collide.

ADAMS: Well, they do, and as a matter of fact, on last night's downhill it was used particularly effectively because they showed how the current first place holder was the Austrian, Walchhofer, and he went over the first jump and he didn't handle it particularly well, and the guy who ultimately won the race did it much better. But if you'd watched the video the way it ran out, you could actually see how they ran the slope differently, but it looked like the Austrian actually landed on the Frenchman's head, so yes it is quite alarming to watch if you don't understand what's happening.

NORRIS: You know the other thing in some of these Winter sports is there are a lot of people out there in reds and blues and sometimes head to toe in white, and it's hard to figure out what country they represent. You can help out in that manner also.

ADAMS: That's correct, and we have done some of that. You'll see in the speed skating, there'll be flags in the ice of the particular skater, and of course, that's virtual. It really does look like it's under the ice, I mean our graphics guys have done a pretty good job with that, but in fact, they're virtual and we even do some innovative things like keep track of how far behind the Olympic record or the world record they are in real time.

NORRIS: And all this is supposed to help a viewer analyze the performance.

ADAMS: Yes. Sports, like any good television, is really about storytelling and the good stories are things that we can connect with emotionally. But that presumes that we understand something about the sport and can follow the action. And so we try and help the fans understand the sport better because that makes for, you know, much better storytelling and a much more interesting broadcast.

NORRIS: Now you know, Mr. Adams, there are some sports purists who are uncomfortable with this. They say it's almost trying to watch the news on cable television with the crawl and all the chyrons and everything. They just want to see the event. They don't necessarily want to see all these special effects.

ADAMS: Well, that's true. Although I will say these technologies are not cheap and so for us to make to the hurdle to want to put it on air, you know, there's a pretty high standard for us to be able to do something to help the storytelling, and there's some rules of thumb that we use to help us decide whether it's the sort of thing that people would want to see. For instance, something that we highlight has to be something that happens a lot, that's important to the event, and that's hard to see. And so, for instance, Sportvision was the company that invented the yellow line in football.

NORRIS: You're talking about the first and ten line.

ADAMS: I'm talking about the first and ten line, right. We use yellow line as a shorthand for that. But what happens there is, you know, as the cameras zoom in on a running back, for instance, as he's lunging for the first down, you at home can't really keep context for, you know, where is that first down. So it's obviously something that's hard to see, it does happen a lot in American football, and it's very important to the sport. So for that reason, you see the first and ten line now on every NFL game and almost every college football game.

So, those sorts of things, those criteria apply to really any sport that we get into and we've done some silly ones that at the end of the day didn't meet that criteria, and we just wasted a lot of R&D money on.

NORRIS: Hank Adams, thanks so much for talking to us.

ADAMS: My pleasure.

NORRIS: Hank Adams is CEO of Sportvision. He joined us from his office in Chicago.


And a reminder that you can read the latest Winter Olympics results, see photos and keep up with the medal standings at our website, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.