Front Row Cam features a Sony HDC-P43 camera equipped with a Fujinon HA42x13.5 lens.

The greatest innovations are often created by those who are most motivated by need. And sports enthusiasts certainly fit into that category. Whether you are in the stands or watching from home on the television, the whole point is to see the game. And the closer, the better; in fact, some fans would like to see every detail of every play—to include facial expressions of the players.

Now, with the help of mirrors and 3D printing, fans are able to see even more through the Front Row Cam system—and they did so on July 2nd, as the new device was unveiled in St. Louis during Sunday Night Baseball. ESPN and VER collaborated on the camera system, which is 16x16x32″ and includes the following features:

  • Sony HDC-P43 camera
  • Fujinon HA42x13.5 lens
  • Sony BPU-4000 baseband processor unit (with high-frame-rate license)
  • HDCU-2500 CCU
  • RCP1500 remote-control panel inside the truck
  • EVS XT3 replay server for 6X slo-mo replays
  • Sony HKCU-SM100 CCU extension adaptor

“One of the biggest things missing [in current MLB coverage] was the low-home camera, [lost to] seats over the last 20 or so years,” says Phil Orlins, senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s MLB coverage. “So many memorable images of Clemens, Gooden, Johnson, Maddux, and on and on. We remember the great tight shots of their intense faces staring in at the hitter and the great super-slo-mo of their pitches.”

The Front Row Cam is also made with a VER pan-and-tilt controller for the robo operator and a VER 3D printed pan-and-tilt housing. The 3D printed parts were created on a Stratasys Fortus 900mc 3D printer, known for its industrial power. The detailed piece consumed over 200 hours of 3D printing.

VER’s Patrick Campbell played an integral role in developing the Front Row Cam system for ESPN.

“We will continue to make software tweaks and mechanical tweaks, but, overall, [ESPN] seems happy with the size,” says Patrick Campbell, VER Director, Global Camera Operations. “From the tip of the lens to the bottom of the camera with the fiber-optic connectors coming out the bottom, there’s not a millimeter to spare. So now we’re working to tweak the external form factor being inside of a box to make it more seamless in the field of play.”

The Front Row Cam is the culmination of years of seeking a device that would function on the ballfield and receive approval from Major League Baseball.

“We played around with a number of different solutions to improve that shot of the pitcher from home plate — including 4K cameras, bigger lenses, electronic zoom — but we found quickly that none of those technologies were as effective as optical zoom to give us what we wanted,” says Steve Raymond, senior technical specialist, ESPN Remote Production Operations. “And a lot of those [technologies] made the size of the package pretty ungainly.”

Once Raymond had Orlins on board with his idea at the end of last year’s season, Campbell was asked to help create the first ‘mockup’—made of cardboard with a 3D printed mock head. The first prototype was used this year in spring training.

“Once we had a prototype, in an effort to reduce the size of the camera, we sat down with our directors and figured out the operating parameters for the tightest possible [shot] they would need and the widest they would ever need,” says Raymond. “Once we knew those benchmarks, we went back and determined the maximum image circle that would ever be seen off the mirror and made the mirror as small as possible, thereby reducing the size of the overall [system]. We determined the optimum use model for the director and figured out what that translated to in physical-size requirements.”

The compact Front Row Cam fits directly into the wall beside signage below the backstop.

3D printing technology allows innovations like this to come to fruition quickly as one person or a team can brainstorm together and then put together a mock-up or prototype—often on their own—and do so quickly and affordably, as well as continuing to make edits to their designs at will. While ABS was used in this project, today there are countless different materials that can be used for an infinite world of new ideas before us.

ESPN wants to see the 3D printed device become a normal part of telecasting, but it will require more refining for production—and must continue to perform according to MLB regulations.

“It’s an ongoing process even now,” says Raymond. “I wouldn’t say we’ve perfected it yet, and we’re still working to find a final design that everyone will be happy with. That said, we’ve managed to overcome the major hurdles that were part of this project, and we are confident that we can come up with something that will make people happy.”

Discuss in the Front Row Cam forum at 3DPB.com.

Front Row Cam officially debuted on ESPN’s Washington Nationals-St. Louis Cardinals SNB telecast at Busch Stadium last Sunday.

[Source / Images: Sports Video Group News]
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