High-tech camera, 3D printing helps broadcaster get better view of the action.

By Barb Darrow
September 9, 2017

If you noticed some new up-close-and-personal camera angles during this week’s U.S. Open, you weren’t imaging things.

A new camera installation, comprising a Sony sne high-definition camera and processor and high-tech lens, sheathed in a custom production-grade thermoplastic enclosure, sits alongside the grandstand court in Flushing, N.Y., this week for the first time.

“It lets us put a camera where they would not allow us to put a camera man,” Stephen Raymond, senior specialist handling ESPN remote camera operations told Fortune. The total unit, which is 20 inches wide, 20 inches deep and 46 inches tall provides high-quality super-slow motion video, all controlled remotely by technicians off the court.

(Below is a screen grab from video filmed by the camera.)

Juan Martín del Potro.
Courtesy of ESPN

 

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Earlier this year, ESPN started using another version of the “front row cam” for its Sunday night baseball broadcast as well. That camera—which sits behind home plate—uses a telephoto lens as opposed to the wide-angle lens that is better suited to cover tennis.

Front-row stadium camera used by ESPN.

Both iterations took quite a bit of engineering beyond the camera itself. VER, the Glendale, Calif., company that assembled both cameras, had to find a way to cram a lot of camera into a space tight enough to meet the stringent requirements of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), Major League Baseball, and the various teams.

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Baseball’s version measures 32 inches high by 16 inches deep by 16 inches wide. Its long lens faces up vertically at a mirror to minimize its footprint behind home plate. To protect the delicate (and expensive) internal gear from passed or batted balls, VER used a Stratasys ssys Fortus 3D printer to create an enclosure that protects the inner workings of the camera and makes the whole unit less obtrusive.

A 3D printer creates an object by layering plastic, nylon, composite, even metal down following a design drawing. One advantage of 3D printing over traditional manufacturing processes is that the work is done in hours versus days.

The initial camera iteration, tried out at baseball spring training, was 40 inches high, and that was a problem given the height of ball park walls around the league. The baseball people wanted it closer to 30 inches, so VER went back to the blackboard (and 3D printer) for a re-do, said Patrick Campbell, VER’s director of Global Camera Operations.

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ESPN’s goal here was to recreate the iconic view of a pitcher staring down a batter. That “low home” perspective, as baseball broadcasters call it, has been largely lost as most stadiums replaced their home-plate cameras with new, and very expensive, seats.

That ability to quickly create new prototypes or finished products is a key selling point of 3D printing, says Rich Garrity, president of the Americas for Stratasys, Minneapolis. “You can build things faster, to exact specifications, without a lot of waste,” he tells Fortune.

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And given the quirks of many sports venues, theaters, and convention centers, there could be opportunities to build more custom camera enclosures, Campbell said.

“We’ve heard from hotel and convention guys who want an inconspicuous camera to provide tight shots of speakers on stage, for example,” he said.

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