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Monday, November 2, 2009

The Octopus: A New Future Of NHL Coverage – The Colonel

“…I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth….”
President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

In 1965, then President Kennedy’s words stood as a clear and poignant charge for the United States to take the lead in space exploration by placing an astronaut on the Moon. What had been Jules Verne’s science fiction of 1865 was to become science fact a bit more than 100 years later, but only a scant eight years after ordered to put the proper resources to the problem. Such statements, challenges and leadership enacted by future will and yet-to-be-discovered-resources altered many world viewpoints, to include how we even look (back) at ourselves.

In the spirit of throwing down a gauntlet to inspiring action, I offer The Octopus as a future way for us to watch the ‘Coolest Game On Earth.’ While some of what I speak of is possible now, as all forward-thinking ideas do, some other parts are offered as something yet to be.

Defining Another Way To Observe Our Favorite Sport

When we cannot physically get to the game in the arena, we turn on our TV/cable/satellite/radio to bring the game to us. Most often, we crave the visual stimulus but settle for radio, be it A/FM or satellite, when we do not have that other choice. It may be obvious to say it, but the majority of us either watches or listens to a given Hockey game outside of the arena. It is this fact that tells me we should always strive to improve the viewing experience.

I fully admit I do not know the technicalities of how the game is currently brought to us. But I do know the viewing experience we see is most often an angled, semi-overhead view that attempts to take in as much of the ice surface upon which the players skate as can be seen. This semi-vertical view of the game is useful, as it is for any sportscast, as a means of following and analyzing the game from a wide-angled perspective. Sometimes we see a shot from just overhead and behind the goalie when the puck is either leaving or entering the zone, too. And lately, there are times when you get an “OvechkinCam” view that only follows one particular player for the time he is on the ice.

Often times, replays of these recorded images from these vantage points are shown and a ‘they-did-THIS-then-THIS-then-shot-and-scored’ explanation of what we originally saw at 15-20 skating miles per hour (mph), 50-60 passing mph, and up to approximately 100 shooting mph is given. The sheer speed of the game often begs for a replay with some analysis, hence why we have our broadcast crew analyze and narrate the ‘tape.’ These perspectives of the game are all we know.

At the same time we can marvel after the fact at frozen images of a split second of a game’s time which truly relates the speed, struggle and emotion of what happens down at the horizontal, ice-level of the game. Just go to NHL.com, any team’s web page, or the Yahoo!NHL page where they have a photo gallery and every shot gives a glimpse of just how close or far a play was to/from success. It is the horizontal plane in which the players live and observe, orient, decide and act (John Boyd’s ‘OODA Loop’) that makes Hockey what it truly is.

We want that horizontal plane.

Said another way, we want the ability to see our Hockey in seamless 3-D. We want to see the images we are watching able to transition from the ‘normal’ overhead(ish) shot ‘down’ to the horizontal in order to take in a play from the perspective of the players and then back upward again. We want to be in the game, even though we are not. And somewhere in the future, we want to control how we see it as well.

The How Of ‘How Do We Do It?’ – The Octopus

A couple of things would be required were this to take place. If you watch college and NFL football, you often times see what I like to call the ‘flying camera’ – that camera on wires suspended over the field that moves just behind the play in an attempt to show you the players’ perspective. Football analysts often have the ability to review a play from just above and behind the players and/or rotate the picture to show it from different angles and perspectives. This is a great tool for football broadcasts.

For Hockey, however, a good friend who is an NHL analyst told me having a ‘flying camera’ above the rink will get in the way of the fan’s view of the game and that is NOT what the networks want to do. It would run completely contrary to why the networks are there in the first place. Agreed. What we need instead is the ability to get that perspective without the flying camera. We need The Octopus.

The maximum number of players in a game is 46 plus four on-ice officials. There are also 46 players’ sticks and the puck to follow. So the Octopus, or rather, Octopi, would be bubbles of 100 (to ensure a little redundancy) independently moving fiber optic cameras – tentacles, if you will – placed all over the rink at different, fixed points and ‘altitudes.’ Each individual tentacle would be slaved to a single player/official/piece of equipment at all times for a set angle of coverage. As a play went from one end to the other, the tentacles at each altitude would pass off their player/referee/stick/puck as it passed out of the field of view to the next tentacle along the line in the direction of movement. You therefore have an uninterrupted passage of the individual person or item down the ice being continuously recorded from multiple angles as they/it move. There is no flying camera, just several, fixed Octopi heads with waving tentacles inside. Together, they take many separate pictures which form the single, composite picture we see on screen. These kinds of cameras as pure hardware are available now.

As each player/official begins training camp, they would be scanned for their official 3-D image. Their all- around image is called up and put into each game’s database and tagged for a specific tentacle of the Octopus. This image is used to bridge camera rendering if necessary as the Octopus is manipulated by the broadcast team. The 3-D imaging and hard- and software processing capability are in their infancy and need money thrown at them to come to fruition.

A locating chip (or redundant chips) would be embedded in players’ and officials’ skates and sticks, goalie gloves and the puck. This chip would continuously signal where the player/referee, stick, goalie gloves and puck are in relation to the ice, in turn keying each dedicated Octopus tentacle to focus on that person/item from a myriad of different perspectives at one time. In most instances, you would want an image of the puck at all times and to know which player/stick/goalie glove is in contact with it to keep the proper camera perspective. Locating chips are NOT in their infancy – it just requires a chip maker to meet the specs you need for the job.

Because the requirement most of the time is to show where the puck went or is and the sequence of who touched it, the super computer runs a three-color coded, digital order of which player (or referee) touches the puck and when. All players from one team have a color, and the on-ice officials have the third. This color-coded, digital system embeds video ‘markers’ that make it very easy for the broadcast crew to tell where to cut their replay video based on a color-change of the list telling them where and when the puck was turned over. At some future point, if spectators are going to make their own ‘view’ of the game, these markers would be made available to them as well. This computer, and the compression required to port the digital stream efficiently over the airwaves/through the Internet is not yet here. Again, I know the‘ugly American’ answer is required – throw the money at it and the answer will come.

Those Octopus tentacle digital feeds and signals would be processed by a super computer ready to merge them with the player/referee/item’s official 3-D image. With that done, the computer can work with the actual recorded images from the Octopus, the location signals and the stored 3-D images to allow for a shot of the person/item from any perspective on the ice at any point in time they are there. Again, see above reference computer and signal compression requirements.

How The Octopus Would Work

A key goal was just scored in a Playoff series-defining game and the game has gone to commercial. Urgently, but with confidence borne of experience using the Octopus system, the broadcast team and production crew work to put together their slice of the goal. Using the color-coded, digital listing, they dial backwards from the goal scored to the turnover in the defensive end, then go for the standard overhead down to behind the player, ice-level shot for altitude. Once they are at the beginning of the breakout, they quickly review the play from front to back and divide up tracker ball duties for the fly-through commentary that will be set to ‘Follow Puck’ mode.

Back from commercial, the play-by-play analyst has a short lead in as the video shows the camera angle coming down from semi-overhead to just above ice level, timed perfectly to take up the horizontal shot as the puck is turned over. The super computer crunches the request to spin the angle control for the picture with the track ball by referencing several of the Octopus tentacles’ shots of players in the camera’s angle of view. It also references and renders the players with their stored, official 3-D image to make it look to the viewer like you have a complete 3-D view of the game no matter which way the angle rotates. The play-by-play commentator then walks the play through from start to finish at the near-horizontal perspective of the game, just like the players’ OODA Loops fought through it. At the end, he raises up the picture’s altitude, freezes the frame, spins it around to the opposite side of the ice and continues the sequence to show the puck leaving the last attackers’ stick and heading past the goaltender into the net.

Once the play-by-play analyst takes it to the goal scored, the color commentator takes control by picking up the recorded package that backs the play up to the first defending player missing the puck as it passes between two attackers in the neutral zone. This recording of actions by the defending team is at just a bit above the horizontal and pauses briefly from time to time in order to point out each of the defensive mistakes made. His angle seamlessly changes after explaining who missed their checks to the goalie’s perspective where he shows there is no way the netminder saw the shot coming because of the screening players to his front.
Elapsed time is 20 seconds as they transition to the next puck drop.

The Octopus is also used periodically during the game by the color commentator to show individual player’s efforts from their horizontal perspective, explaining the player’s OODA Loop because he/she has the personal experience to decipher the decisions made.

Advertised to be coming in the future is a subscription-based service with a spectator’s own track ball capability to receive an alternate feed that allows them to manipulate their own replays at will in order to better understand the game they are watching. It is a million(s) seller around the world and the NHL is the only sport leading the way on this charge to put their fans into the game.


The Octopus would be a system that neither blocks the viewing experience of the fan paying for a seat in the arena, nor annoys the spectator watching the game at home on their TV. It would also assist the broadcast crew in defining the game from the traditional, overhead shot down to the horizontal plane where players’ OODA Loops are executed. Not only is it used by broadcasters to illustrate their uniquely informed view of the game, but in the future, it would be used by fans as well to provide them with their own perspective of their favorite sport. In the process, the spectator/fan is periodically put into the game even though they cannot physically be there themselves, an innovation no other sport provides.

For these reasons, I advocate The Octopus as a future means of enhancing the game experience for the viewer.

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