Sepp Blatter does not have Pocket-Lint in his RSS feed. As the head of Fifa and the most powerful man in world football, he has long resisted the march of technological progress, steadfastly refusing to embrace systems, such as Hawk-Eye, which could help rid the game of the damaging refereeing controversies, such as the infamous handball by Thierry Henry in the World Cup play-offs, that linger like the hum of Wayne Rooney’s jockstrap after 90 minutes plus extra time and maybe pens, if we’re unlucky.
Fortunately, the rest of us can leave Sepp to play with his abacus and spinning top, as we get ready to savour all the shiny new cutting-edge bliss that will accompany the World Cup 2010 coverage here in the UK. With the matches split between the BBC and ITV, both will be clamouring to grab viewer loyalty – and this time round, as well as making sure that the stature of the pundits on the sofas is world class, both are expanding their coverage to ensure that they offer a 360-degree experience.
While both channels are offering HD and Red Button content, ITV have expanded the interactive angle with the launch of ITV Live, a customisable online hub which promises to integrate tailored replay selection, real-time stats and a social networking aspect, allowing for live polls and discussion. So you can take in the latest OPTA stats – then handily use them to expertly destroy Emile Heskey in an adjacent forum.
They’re also using an upgraded version of the analytical software used by their pundits at half-time, Piero, an advanced telestator which fuses graphics with real-time footage to dissect the game’s talking points. After calibrating it to the onscreen pitch, it can help illustrate tactics, analyse offside decisions, calculate distances and speed and provide compter graphics that offer offer virtual analysis of almost any incident.
But ultimately, Piero is not a new a system. Ironically, it was developed for the BBC back in 2004 by Red Bee, then know as BBC Broadcast, before being later adopted by their rivals at ITV. The Beeb has used it ever since, and will continue to do so at the 2010 the World Cup – but Auntie is also going to have its own rather impressive new analytical tool up its sleeve which will make its debut during in South Africa, one that has already got Alan Hansen all of a flutter - Libero.
The key step up is that while Piero is a telestrator that creates virtual graphics based on data and can layer analaytical information over match footage, Libero takes it up a gear and forges a superior, more realistic and flexible 3D model.
Developed by Swiss programmers Liberovision, the BBC’s Libero is a tweaked version of their DiscoverEye software, which debuted during Euro 2008 and has since found favour stateside as ESPN Axis. Taking multiple camera angles and rendering them into one multi-facted stream of footage, Libero is able to carry out the same analytical tasks as Piero, but visually leaves it in its wake. Both create augmented graphic renderings of the footage – but where Piero offers a computer-generated take, the more advanced Libero does the same using real footage. The BBC’s Libero operator John Loughman explains:
“The difference with Libero is that it uses a hard drive to record the different angles it has to render. It’s taking multiple angles and doing computations, then it synchronises and locks them together. The amount of rendering and work it’s doing from technical point of view is quite mind-blowing."
"It can create a flyover that’s a totally virtual camera angle. At the click of a mouse button we can fly from one camera angle to the 18-yard line. They’re two real cameras, but the flight inbetween is made up of a composite – the camera position is virtual. While you’re in the virtual angle you can add the offside line and fly back to any of the angles."
"If it’s an offside call you can move the attacking player and Libero knows the rules so, if the ball moves ahead, the offside line moves too. Like the Piero, you can highlight players, draw arrows – but all the time they stay locked to the pitch as you fly around – and it stays tight. It knows where everything is and can remember the position relative to where the camera is. The players move, the pitch moves but it knows where they all are.”
Libero does so by taking in those multiple camera viewpoints and morphing between them – the footage is still virtual, but by basing it on calibrated footage that creates a 3D model, its data is more solid, slicker and, most importantly, more seamless than Piero.
“It’s as realistic as you can get,” says Match of the Day producer Phil Sibson. “We’re not creating a generated environment, these are the actual angles – all it’s doing is morphing between them. That’s why the pundits like it. Alan Hansen has said that Libero is the first thing that’s got him excited from an analysis point of view. He said it’s something that he’s been wanted to be able to do for absolutely years. Lee Dixon actually came in to do some extra training on it, he wanted to get up to speed on it in time for the World Cup. We trialled it at the Carling Cup semis and the final and it was very successful, all the pundits were really pleased with it.”
Piero remains a great tool and is held in high regard by the BBC, but it’s not without its limitations – the new ITV version uses the Real Stadium effect, but that will only take so much manipulation before it starts running out of image data, crudely exposing how it patchworks in its visuals.
Plus, in Piero the players can slip into 2D or conspicuously appear virtual. A key fact for the pundits and the BBC team is that all of these start to undermine the veracity of the footage – vitally important when you’re trying to offer an authoratitive take on an issue. Libero stylishly eliminates this problem altogether.
“If you see any elements that are computer-generated stuff, people start questioning it, you start to start wondering ‘Is this real?’,” reckons Loughman. Sibson agrees:
“Piero is excellent for all the basics, but it’s creating images that aren’t there, so it’s limiting. This is why we brought in Libero – you’re using actual footage to move around.”
Given that Piero has progressed since 2004, this version of Libero may just be the start. The Swiss developers are looking to shave the rendering time down from the current 5-10 minutes to enable real-time turnaround, while the Premier League are working with Venatrack on another system which will be able to create a 360 approach that uses a far greater number of cameras fixed around the stadium. Sibson also sees a rosy future:
“I think the next thing is being able to slide around completely 3D, which may be coming soon. Once you can do that you’ve pretty much nailed it.”