On-Field Graphics Are Going 3-D

Posted by Chappell Ellison

When the Toronto Raptors hosted the Cleveland Cavaliers last week, television audiences may have noticed what appeared to be a huge sandwich board resting at each baseline. It looked like a 7-footer would miss a layup and go crashing through one of the signs at any moment.

Then, early in the game, a referee walked straight through one of the signs, and TV viewers realized they were viewing an optical illusion. To the announcers calling the game, the Toronto's win was overshadowed by the Raptors becoming the first North American basketball team to use a 3-D graphic on its court.

Created by the Danish-based company LogoPaint, the graphic appears to send the team name leaping toward the audience—the TV audience, that is. For fans in the arena, the graphics look like nothing more than strange, skewed blobs of paint.

The Raptors' innovative approach to on-court graphics part of a growing trend of arenas’ aesthetic choices prioritizing television audiences over fans on-site. In fact, the sandwich board graphic represent a far less-invasive application of TV-specific visual effects than many other recent uses of augmented reality in televised sports. Almost every sport on television now features a computer graphic overlay intended to convey statistical data to the viewer.

The 1st and Ten system used in college and professional football is perhaps the most successful use of augmented reality on the field. Since 1998, 1st and 10 has created a virtual yellow line on the field to show TV viewers where the first-down line lies. The system has proven popular among football fans, who no longer have to remember where the play began or carefully watch referees mark the spot of the ball with chains. Over the years, the yellow line has found company; the field is now home to other digital marks, like AT&T-sponsored images that pop up occasionally to inform viewers of the number of yards remaining until first down. But the 1st and Ten line remains the gold standard, continuing to ease new fans into football  by communicating an important statistic without significantly altering the way the sport is watched. The superimposed graphic aids TV audiences without disturbing players or fans in the stadium.

Television audiences also receive special treatment in baseball: Many stadiums mount green-screen panels behind home plate to display rotating superimposed ads. The effect only works with live television, which means instant replays are marred by green panels over the umpire's shoulder. Baseball fans have taken to forums to criticize what they see as a distracting annoyance.

The most infamous foray into augmented-reality sports broadcasts is derided to this day. When Fox won the rights to broadcast NHL games in 1994, executives developed a visual system designed to help American audiences follow the puck on the ice. Dubbed FoxTrax, the system created a brightly colored, computer-generated comet tail that followed the puck throughout each game. Canadians were, understandably, unimpressed. "We get a lot of American satellite feeds in Toronto," one of my Canadian friends says. "When that hockey season began, I remember all of us saying, 'What is this light show?'"

Unlike the 1st and Ten line, which appears and vanishes seamlessly, FoxTrax's constant movement was overwhelming, becoming more of a visual nuisance than an aide. In retrospect, the effect looks downright silly, making hockey look more like an arcade game than a physical, serious sport. The negative effects were two-fold: The system not only failed to win over new viewers, it threatened to drive awake core NHL fans. FoxTrax was retired in 1998 when NHL broadcast rights switched to ABC.

The Raptors’ approach to augmented reality works because it’s more low-key. Such an optical illusion is not brand-new; street chalk artists Kurt Wenner and Julian Beever rely on the same principle in their work. But the Raptors’ spin is refreshing because it keeps things analog and simple. The graphic is just invasive enough to make an impact on audiences, yet easily ignored when game play begins. It's surprising that more NBA teams haven't experimented with court graphics in the race to create as much buzz as possible, but let’s hope the Raptors use of augmented reality—and not FoxTrax's—is a sign of things to come.