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Virtual reality comes to Super Bowl

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Posted: Thursday January 25, 2001 3:26 AM

  Bob Collins Bob Collins of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University sits in front of a 1/20th scale football field in his lab in Pittsburgh. AP

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Can't tell if your team recovered a key fumble? Want to know if the wideout got both feet in before going out of bounds? Tired of grainy instant replays even on that high-definition TV you paid plenty for?

A new prototypical technology called virtualized reality and developed by the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh may do away with such vexing problems.

The budding advance will have a worldwide stage on which to makes its debut: Sunday's Super Bowl XXXV matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants.

Institute director and Carnegie Mellon teacher Takeo Kanade, one of the principal creators of the technology, said the advance is a huge step in virtual reality technology, in which computers are typically used to simulate an artificial, 3-dimensional environment.

"Our models are derived from real images, [so] the models look much more real than typical virtual worlds," he said.

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In virtualized reality, digital cameras capture images up to 30 times a second to create a video from multiple angles in continuous motion.

If the Ravens' Ray Lewis were to tackle and knock off the helmet of an opposing player, a technician in a control room would have the camera closest to the action to record the play while the others automatically focus and record the hit as well.

When played back in sequence, the result looks as if a viewer is moving around the players as they collide and spin.

Kanade warned, however, this is "still very much a prototype system." So did Ken Aagaard, senior vice president of operations for CBS Sports, which is televising the game.

"This is a very immature technology. If we use it three or four times, we'll be happy," Aagaard said.

He said, however, that he expects the technology to be refined. What viewers will see this Sunday compared to next year's Super Bowl will be like "night and day," he said, adding that virtualized reality may be used for other events including the NCAA college basketball tournament and tennis' U.S. Open.

A simpler version of virtualized reality was used in the movie The Matrix and commercials for The Gap clothing chain.

In the movie, multiple cameras fixed on a single point made Keanu Reeves appear to float and freeze during fight scenes. In the commercials, dancers appear to change directions while leaping.

But, in those examples, the cameras focused on a single point and seemed to move around the performers. In the Carnegie Mellon technology, the cameras will be able to turn at the same time to record, from all the angles, the action as the players leap and run, wherever they are on the field.

The total cost for the hardware used at this year's Super Bowl, including 33 digital cameras, zoom lenses and pan/tilt heads is roughly $600,000.

A pan/tilt head allows the camera to move in almost any direction. Kanade said finding the right mounting -- not creating the technology -- was his biggest challenge.

Kanade ended up going to Japan-based Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which supplied him with a modified robotic arm similar to ones used to build cars.

Kanade is excited to see his brainchild in action, even if it is a prototype, calling it "joyful nervousness."

"As an engineer, we're conservative. But we want it to work," he said.

Bob Collins, a member of the institute and creator of the software that allows the cameras to record in sychronization, is not a football fan, but said he will tape the big game on several VCRs in his home.

He may be holding his breath as well.

Related information
Stories's Super Bowl XXXV Coverage
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