Ball Watching

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 December, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2000, 12:00am

Onward and upward. That's the motto of our age and as we are just days away from the advent of the year 2001, with all its connotations of progress, sports coverage is set to feel the full blast of change.

New media technology is developing at such a fantastic rate that visions of brave new world's for the armchair football fan are being touted on a weekly basis.

The idea is accepted that more and more coverage, provided faster and faster in unimaginably varied formats is the way ahead.

But where are the Luddites, where are the anti-progressive resistance to such rapid-fire change? Every revolution has had its nay-sayers and even though usually steam-rollered by events, their contrary voices are at least a sign of healthy dissent.

For instance has the thought not crossed your mind that some of the mooted developments envisaged for soccer coverage might not be a tad superfluous to our needs? Is there not a limit to how much gadgetry we can be bothered to use?

A recent conference on new media technology for example, postulated that in as little as three years the armchair fan may be able to click on a computer mouse and watch a virtual reality 3D animation of a piece of match action from any angle they want, including the goalscorer's view of the goal from the pitch, while the game is going on.

This new technology, has already been broadcast on the Internet to bring sports such as America's Cup sailing to life. It was seen in news bulletins during the famous yacht race. Using live digital data transmitted from the boats, the company has since developed virtual reality graphics that allow spectators on the Internet to follow the racing yachts from every angle possible on their computer screens.

With a sport such as yachting where the field are spread out over huge distances at sea, it is very difficult to get live television pictures that can encompass the key moments.

With a click of the mouse the viewer can swoop down like diving seagulls to just beside the boats or zoom out to look at the boats' locations from a satellite in space.

Information beside the animation also shows the distance between the boats and the weather conditions, making a complicated sport much easier to understand.

The bonus is that organisers do not need television pictures to show the action if the cameras are not in place in the middle of the ocean. The virtual reality replaces the pictures.

Some believe it could be the way people will watch sport in the future, combining a traditional television experience with live 3D virtual reality.

A similar effect was available at the 1998 World Cup when replays of goals would be shown in the form of a virtual reality graphic with the point of view moving in an out and around in a three-dimensional, 360 degree plane.

The difference between these two versions (Admiral's Cup and World Cup) and the projected advance of the near future is that the viewer himself will be able to make the choice of angle and to move his point of view through the scene himself.

Now this is the point where the Luddites might rise up. We're used to having professional programme editors and vision mixers make these decisions for us and that will be a difficult habit to break. Also who wants the distraction of having to decide which side of the field to look from, which player to follow etc, when you just want to focus on the game. Most of televised football as it is comprises the static long shot that contains half of the playing field. If a long ball takes play into another part of the pitch then the camera pans. Occasionally this pattern is interspersed with close-ups of significant action or slow-motion replays.

That is quite adequate. I'd bet that if the new wondrous technology of interactive 3D virtual reality animation was available it would be a shortlived gimmick. After who would want to be watching a virtual image, 3D or not, when you could be watching the real thing?

The other question the new technology has raised is the question of convergence between television and Internet

The subject of Internet rights is a major debating point and the rapidly developing sports online market means that it will not just go away. There is concern among sports chiefs, not least at FIFA, UEFA and the FA, that any separate exploitation of Internet rights could undermine the value of existing television contracts.

This week sees another double bout of Premier League action, with three live matches on CABLE SPORTS. While most of the major European leagues are preparing for short breaks, the Premiership ploughs on.

Tomorrow there is an early kick-off game with fourth-placed Ipswich, who have dropped five points in two matches, hosting Tottenham, the side who can't win away.

That is followed by the 'second v third' clash between Arsenal and Sunderland. Arsenal were seen losing heavily to Liverpool last week but bounced back with that big win over Leicester, which was not shown by CABLE. So which face will they show tomorrow?

In a sense it all seems immaterial anyway as Arsenal, Sunderland, Ipswich, Leicester, Liverpool and the rest all seem to be playing second fiddle to the Manchester United victory parade. Both United's wins last week were shown by CABLE and neither suggested any obvious weaknesses in the champions' ranks.

They can be seen in tomorrow's delayed game away to Newcastle and in the live game on Monday night/Tuesday morning at home to West Ham. When the sides met early in the season at Upton Park the Hammers produced two late goal to earn a draw.

In other notable programmes this week, CABLE are showing the FIFA Gala Awards, the event at which the 'player of the decades' prize aroused a Maradona v Pele controversy. It was also where Zinedine Zidane emerged as a slightly surprising choice of player of the year.

And on Wednesday at the friendly time of 6pm CABLE will also bring live coverage of the FIFA friendly match between a Japan/Korea XI and a World select team.