Inside Intel's bold plan to personalize live 3D sports broadcasts

Intel is working on technology so viewers can carve out their own interactive live sports broadcasts on PCs, VR headsets, and even TVs

Viewers may soon see a big change coming in the way they experience the chills and thrills of live sports broadcasts. It'll be customizable, interactive, and it will put them at the center of the experience.

If it goes as envisioned, Intel's multi-year plan will allow viewers to tailor their own live sports broadcasts, and watch events as if they were on the field.

The live sports broadcasts will be available for VR headsets, PCs, and even TVs. The experience will be unlike live sports today, in which the views and angles are selected by the broadcasters.

Instead, viewers in real-time will be able to create their own 3D broadcast of a sports event. Viewers will be able to select any type of view or camera angle they want for the live broadcast.

For example, users will be able to get a bird's eye view of a touchdown in a football game or a goal in soccer. Alternately, users will be able to view the same experience from a player's perspective. It depends on what a viewer selects, and many angles will be covered.

Intel's goal is to roll out this 360-degree live broadcast technology starting in 2019, and the company is working with broadcasters to deliver the real-time interactive experience.

Watching live content is now a linear experience, but live broadcasts tailor-made to viewers will revolutionize the way people watch sports, said James Carwana, general manager at Intel's sports group.

Intel is already working with a number of broadcasters to deliver these unique 3D experiences in real time to viewers, said Jeff Hopper, general manager of immersive experiences at Intel.

Broadcasters are eager to bring more interactive experience to live sports, Hopper said.

Some sports, such as football and soccer, are ideal for this interactive 3D live sports experience. It may be difficult to bring the same experience to sports like skiing, with the action happening over long distances. But Carwana said Intel is eager to bring this experience to a variety of sports and broadcasts worldwide.

Watching live sports from any angle will especially be fun on VR headsets, which allows users to view 3D content. In the future, viewers will be able to switch angles in real time and roam through a field as a play is taking place.

Interactive live sports is a killer application for VR, a market that is still emerging. Games are being received with a lot of enthusiasm on VR headsets, and live sports will bring a similar experience, except a viewer isn't playing.

But broadcasting live interactive content is easier said than done. It involves implementing an army of cameras in stadiums, creating a full 3D video experience so any particular scene can be viewed from any angle, and a new media format to support the interactive experience. It also requires a powerful back-end of servers to process all the data required to create an experience customized to each viewer.

Intel's starting off modestly with interactive replays instead of live broadcasts, allowing it to test the technology before it goes big time. At Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, Fox Sports will show interactive replays based on Intel's 360-degree replay technology. Intel has already used similar replay technology in sports like baseball and basketball.

Further down the road, as technology is closely integrated into sports, users will be able to view live statistics as part of the experience. Intel has already done that, with live statistics on display during a live broadcast of the Winter X Games last year. In real-time, users were able to view key athlete performance data like how high a snowboarder jumped and how far they rotated. The data was captured from sensors on the snowboards.

Intel is working on technology that will make all of this happen. It is using a media format called FreeD, which will be central to live interactive sports broadcasts. Instead of pixels, which are used in regular images and video file formats, FreeD will have voxels, which composes image content in a three-dimensional format.

In each stadium offering live interactive video, 38 cameras will be installed, which is enough to generate a full view of all angles needed to generate a custom broadcast for each viewer. The cameras will generate terabytes of image data every few seconds.

During a live broadcast, a viewer will be able to select the angle they want to see a sport from, and that request will be delivered to a server. The server will compile the custom broadcast by processing and cutting images from all 38 cameras to generate the desired angle.

Servers will need a lot of horsepower to do that. Intel will use FreeD rendering technologies from its acquisition of Replay Technologies, which specializes in video formatting. It will also rely on algorithms to help generate those interactive for live sports broadcasts.

Intel has targeted the TV market several times previously, including a plan to launch its own TV service, but failed. This is the most ambitious experience so far, and it'll require many years of commitment. Intel has also acquired companies like Voke -- which provides technology to deliver live 3D broadcasts to VR headsets -- that are playing a central role in the chipmaker's efforts.

The amount of data generated for an interactive live sports broadcast leads to bandwidth challenges, the Intel executives acknowledged. But with technologies like 5G -- which could transmit mobile data at speeds of up to 20Gbps -- coming, some of those issues could be resolved, Hopper said. The live sports technology touches upon the key markets Intel is pursuing, including 5G, servers, and the internet of things.

The technology is still not here, and Intel's plan to make it possible by 2019 seems ambitious considering the numerous challenges. But Intel has a clear vision of how live sports broadcasts will look, and it's exciting.

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