ESPN adds Arena to its Technical Area

In the ongoing battle to better inform viewers about what’s really going on on the pitch, ESPN has unveiled ESPN Arena, an augmented reality tabletop display that allows its football analysts to interact with lifelike 3D players.

For those that remember it from their childhood, it’s not too far away from the all-singing, all-dancing Subbuteo set you always dreamed of (as can be amply proved by watching the demo video). It’s an extremely cool piece of kit, one that definitely helps explain some of the more arcane elements of football tactics, and something that grew out of ESPN’s Marc Rowley simply walking past an IBC demo mounted by London-based RT Software.

“Mark actually filmed a bit of their demo at IBC and once I’d seen that I knew that we wanted to have it,” says ESPN Exec Producer, Andrew Hornett. “The demo was of a basketball game and had a number of characters running around, so we talked with RT about repurposing it for football, and I think we got it all done in a couple of weeks.”

“What I liked about what I saw was that I went back to their demo four times, made them show it to me four times, and each time it worked,” adds Rowley. “Some other companies you ask them to run it again and you see there’s a bug the second time, or something slows down, but each time RT ran through it, it was the same.”

Which, given that they’ve gone on air with it a mere seven weeks after IBC wrapped up, is handy really. The system couples a 65-in touchscreen from U-Touch, which forms the tabletop, with virtual studio tracking equipment from Vinten Radomec driving the RT Software package. As Hornett says, it’s a great way of explaining the spatial relationships that exist on the football pitch and the way people interact with them. It also highlights the benefits of dealing with companies that get things done.

“We had a discussion, they brought it in, and it worked, simple as that,” he says. “There were a few tweaks and changes we made, of course, and we got our talent in to play with it for a few days. But RT turned up on Day One, said we’re going to deliver you every Premier League team, every strip colour, and it will all work – and it did. We’ve added more buttons so that we can have more pre-programmed positions, based on feedback from Kevin Keegan and the others that will be using it, so there are still some ongoing developments we’re making.”

Along with the launch of a new interactive screen, ESPN Touchline, the new Technical Area highlights the importance of such initiatives in the battle to capture viewer’s attention, not to mention their subs. Unsurprisingly, the company is also looking at the possibility of deploying it in some function in the US, though, as Rowley says, “There’s a lot of cool technology out there but it’s important that that cool technology helps tell the story better.”

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