EyeVision is an eye opener

The Baltimore Ravens' 34-7 romp over the New York Giants provided the almost traditional Super Bowl mismatch. So it was CBS' new EyeVision technology that took center stage on a controversial touchdown scored by the Ravens' Jamal Lewis late in the game. If the running back's outstretched hands kept control of the football as he dove for the end zone, the Ravens had just iced the game.

While the officials mulled the Giants' appeal of the play, CBS provided its own 3-D animation replay with an EyeVision view, and a new era in sports replays may well have been born.

"We were just very lucky we had this play," says CBS Sports Senior Vice President of Operations Ken Aagaard. "We got a couple of plays to show it off well."

The concept was simple, although the technology proved to be another matter: Ring a football stadium with 33 robotic cameras that can swivel and zoom, covering virtually every conceivable angle of the game action. Create a system that links the control boards receiving the images and create a computer-generated animation that turns 360 degrees to enable a perspective from any angle on every play.

So just when the game was about to get out of hand, EyeVision handed several hundred million onlookers a reason to pay close attention. The replays were a high point, clearly showing viewers open passing lanes and other elements not otherwise discernible.

It was a distinctly different view of the action, and CBS Sports expects to use it for the NCAA basketball tournament and peddle it around to other sports and entertainment programmers, according to Aagaard.

CBS is now an equal partner in The Revolution Co., a newly formed venture with Princeton Video Image and Core Digital Technologies. Revolution aims to overturn production techniques with its $2 million EyeVision system.

Beyond its own NCAA plans, CBS is expecting to use EyeVision with ESPN for the upcoming National Hockey League Stanley Cup playoffs and is also talking to the Indianapolis 500 about using it for that big annual race. Aagaard reports that the technology was a "big hit" with MTVers when it was used for the halftime concert show, and he expects entertainment companies to have plans for it, too.

But he touts the technology as an innovative diamond in the rough: "People are going to look back at the Super Bowl a year from now, and it's going to be like Steamboat Willie and Mickey Mouse."

It wasn't easy getting the technology prepped in time for the big game. Neither field test planned for NFL games in the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey was conducted as planned. One nine-camera trial there preceded EyeVision's national debut at Tampa Bay. "It almost blew up 70 times," says Aagaard, noting that a particularly nasty problem with the Mitsubishi robotic camera heads blowing up control boards with violent power surges needed to be solved.

It was, and the Super Bowl telecast went almost perfectly, except for one camera being out of commission during the first half. The only shortcoming of the system was that the original plan to provide 360-degree stadium coverage simply didn't work. Camera angles were overlapped slightly to avoid jarring images, with the result that only 260 degrees were covered.

In the case of that questionable Ravens touchdown, though, it was the right 260 degrees.

The result is a complete digital record of the game, which can eventually be repurposed to DVD by Core Digital. And enhancements are on the way, according to Aagaard.

As for the HD side of the Super Bowl coverage, CBS Executive Vice President Martin Franks says the network is very pleased with the way the production went. "Our viewers know how to find us when they're unhappy, and so far all we've gotten are compliments. It seems like everyone who had an HD receiver had a Super Bowl party."

The Super Bowl was the fifth consecutive weekend that CBS has offered HD sports programming, with the Sony Open golf tournament filling in the off-week between the NFL playoffs the Super Bowl.