January 24, 2013

Sky tries out rugby RefCam

Sky Sports has whistled up trials of a miniature RefCam for rugby union, to give a new angle on the action. It has already broadcast one trial, with an SD camera, but will test an HD version in a live English Championship match from Nottingham on Sunday (27 January).

The set up involves “a lot of bespoke kit, because the aim was always to make it as light as possible, because we had to get the referees to agree to it,” explained Sky Sport’s Senior Director of Rugby Union, Sam Foskett.

The very first trial of the chest-mounted RefCam wasn’t for broadcast, and was just an ad hoc game played at Harrow School to see if the system worked and get feedback from the referee wearing the system. A picture of the director's monitor showing the shot from the RefCam in that game is shown above.

The experiment was a success, but when the standard definition camera was used as part of a full HD outside broadcast for the RFU Championship match (the level beneath England’s Premiership) the difference in picture quality between the images from the small SD camera and the main HD cameras was noticeable.

For next Sunday’s match, it will use a miniature HD camera that was previously used for snooker broadcasts, where it was placed in the pockets of the snooker table.

The camera links system is a pared down version of a standard communication link Sky would typically use on a bigger broadcast camera, but with its bulk considerably reduced to “about the size of a wallet and weighing the same as two iPhones.”

The difficulty is in reducing weight while maintaining robustness. The broadcast trial revealed that the vest built to contain the camera and links “was a bit flimsy.” So, they have used pieces of plastic usually used to reinforce the collars of newly bought shirts to help stabilise the camera mount.

Otherwise, the broadcast trial was a success. “The referees were really excited about it, because they want to use it for training purposes, and from our point of view it proved we could get closer to the action,” said Foskett (pictured above at Twickenham). Some leading referees, such as Nigel Owens, have commented that if it is used it could help reduce criticism of the referee as it will show that from their angle they couldn’t have seen an incident that viewers feel they should have dealt with.

Foskett thought it worked particularly well for the scrum and lineout, and when the referee was talking to players. “When the ref is on the run it can be a bit disconcerting, so we can’t use it live, but if it is of interest we can use it as a replay.” Perhaps a wider angle lens would help, as it would not only make the running shots appear less jarring, but would help when talking to players, where the heads of some of the taller forwards were out of shot.

Matt Carley (pictured above getting fitted with the RefCam vest), the referee for the Newcastle Falcons v London Scottish match (the first broadcast trial) commented afterwards: “I forgot it was on me,” which Foskett feels proves that it won’t affect the referee’s game.

If the HD trial is successful, and the referees and rugby authorities agree to it, Sky hopes to use it on higher level matches, from the Premiership and, particularly the Heineken Cup, “but the referee is there to referee the game, not to create images for us, but hopefully the benefits to viewers and referees for their own training will mean it can go further.”

Similar miniature systems are starting to be used elsewhere. Sky is currently transmitting cricket matches from Australia’s Big Bash tournament that features umpire cameras for the first time, while in America HBO used a tiny camera sewn into a boxing referee’s bow tie in another experiment.

“As cameras get lighter and links get lighter, we can get it to places we never could before, but where it won’t affect the people involved,” said Foskett. “If you can get a lens one metre from the scrum it will give you something different from a lens 50m away.”

By David Fox