NASCAR's new vision

Companies involved with interactive television have always pointed to sports applications as a natural fit. The capabilities of choosing camera angles or following a specific athlete (such as a racecar driver or golfer) are the typical won't-it-be-cool-someday applications.

The pay-per-view "NASCAR In Car On inDemand" service that will debut June 16 is a fairly close facsimile of that concept, and without the layers of interactive middleware and software (and expensive set-top boxes). Instead, the service will use seven PPV channels to allow viewers to choose from the live network feed, five channels dedicated to in-car cameras, and an interactive data channel that will provide comprehensive race information. The 22-race package will cost $99 and be offered on AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Time Warner and other MSOs.

"It's really the first element of interactive television because viewers will have a choice of what they're doing," says Steve Roberts, Sportvision executive vice president, product development. "It's very simple, and it uses ACTV technology for the seamless channel changing. The hope is to build other interactive features on top of this that will interact with all of the set-top boxes and different middleware out there."

Sportvision and ACTV are working together to develop the statistical and graphic information that will be found on the channels. Mobile production company NEP has built a 53-foot trailer that will house ACTV's equipment for the production (NASCAR will share the truck as well). An ACTV Event System will be in the truck and pull in the audio and video information for the broadcasts, Sportvision information, FanScan audio feeds of driver radios, and in-camera shots captured with cameras installed by BST.

"We're producing each one of those channels," says ACTV Chief Technology Officer Kevin Liga. "Each car has three cameras inside, and we'll move them around based on the action. And we'll present the graphics and data elements."

The mobile version of the Event System will be used. It includes Chyron Max, Maxine and Infinit character generators; Logic Innovation server; Sony monitors; Miranda and Leitch gear; and a Grass Valley production switcher and Profile server to create a tapeless environment for the production. It also includes the transmission system and creates the multiplex at the race track. ACTV's proprietary automation system is used to trigger events.

"No human could technically direct seven channels at once, so we created all these macros so that, at the press of a button, an entire screen could be created," says Liga. "For example, it senses when the driver audio is coming in."

Sportvision also has a mobile production unit that will be connected to the PPV truck to feed it information for the production. On-board computers in the cars will transmit information concerning the cars' readings five times a second to keep viewers more than up to date on the action.

"We're working with ACTV on the look and feel of the entire multichannel package," says Sportvision CEO Bill Squadron. "Our data, which is now used occasionally for the in-car camera dashboards, will be used constantly for all the in-car channel looks."

The information that will be included on the data channel is still being sorted out. According to Squadron, viewers will be able to get real-time leader information, how far ahead the leader is, or even lap speeds by simply changing channels.

He says this is the first step toward taking full advantage of the information that Sportvision collects. Because of that wealth of data with respect to every car's position and speed, he explains, it might one day be possible to have real-time videogames in which viewers can actually drive in the race.

One thing that should be in place by year-end, Roberts says, is a real-time racecast on that will allow people to find out what speeds cars are going at and where they are on the course. "We're slowly but surely ticking off developments for other platforms."