Olympic Style TV Coverage Over 802.11

By Gerry Blackwell

December 18, 2001

Case Study: This article details the successful multimedia application of 802.11b devices used in conjunction with sophisticated video equipment to bring heretofore impossible coverage to a large group of viewers

It's always a carnival atmosphere at the annual Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Championships in Camden NJ.

Fans crowd the grandstand at the finish line, alumni groups from competing schools set up hospitality tents, raucous tailgate parties are in full swing all along the course.

The event this past June was no different, but it was a landmark edition of the decades-old regatta in one respect.

For the first time, spectators got to see the whole race rather than just screaming themselves hoarse for the last 50 seconds as the boats swung into view around a bend in the Cooper River.

This year they watched the races unfold on a giant Astrovision TV screen.

The Olympic-style coverage of the event was possible thanks to an innovative 802.11b network set-up courtesy of Avaya Inc. (www.avaya.com), the Lucent spin-off that markets ORiNOCO Wi-Fi gear to enterprise customers.

Avaya is a major sponsor of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC), which is in turn a member of the IRA, the organizer of the Camden event.

The two-day regatta, the IRA's 99th, involved schools from all over the country, more than 50 in all, and over 1,000 rowers entered in a full slate of events - eights, fours, pairs and sculls. The races went all day.

Avaya first tried out its idea of providing television coverage of rowing races using its Wi-Fi routers at the Easter Region Sprints on Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester MA in April.

"We were mainly looking for a way to demonstrate the technology to some of our customers," explains Avaya regional applications specialist Guy Clinch.

For that first experimental event, Clinch set up a series of Avaya Wireless Outdoor Routers along the course, in a kind of Wi-Fi cellular network. Each was attached to a yaggi antenna.

A camera operator using a consumer camcorder followed the races in a chase boat, shooting the action. The camcorder was connected to a laptop PC in the boat equipped with a Wi-Fi NIC and running Avaya's Collaborative Video software. The PC transmitted the video signal from the camcorder as high-quality H.323 streaming video over the wireless network.

Near the finish line, Clinch had a hospitality tent set up as his central command center, which included a Wi-Fi-equipped PC connected to a point-to-multipoint COR-II (Central Outdoor Router). The COR-II unit was in turn connected to an omni-directional antenna which received signals from the yaggis.

As the race progressed, the routers along the course wirelessly relayed the video back to a screen in Clinch's command center, handing off the signal from cell to cell.

"That worked fairly well," he says, "until somebody splashed the PC with water."

Nevertheless, ECAC and IRA officials were impressed enough with the set-up that they urged Clinch to bring it out again for the much bigger Championship meet in Camden.

This time, Clinch set up three camera positions along the Cooper. The racers would never be out of view of a camera. He hired professionals with broadcast-quality Betamax cameras to shoot the races. They stayed on shore.

At each position there was a PC with both a Wi-Fi NIC and one of Avaya's Collaborative Video PC cards which makes it possible to push out high-bandwidth, near-broadcast-quality H.323 video. An S-video connection fed the video from the Betamax into the PC.

As in the Worcester pilot, the Outdoor Routers were loaded with two cards each, one providing connectivity to the PC, one for connection to the yaggi antenna.

Clinch had the same command center set-up at the finish line, but this time it worked a little differently.

The Avaya Collaborative Video software let him simply key in the IP address of the PC at each camera station to pop up a window with the video feed from that position. As racers approached a camera position, Clinch, at the controls, would maximize the feed from that camera.

His PC this time fed the H.323 signal to a high-quality scan converter, which converted it to an RGB signal and passed it to the Panasonic Astrovision screen.

The screen is similar to the one in Times Square, which includes 1.5 million LED's (light emitting diodes) capable of reproducing over a billion shades of color. It's viewable even in bright sunlight. The traveling Astrovision screen the IRA rented for the regatta is about double the size of the side panel on a semi trailer, Clinch says.

The network wasn't quite able to deliver full 4-Mbps broadcast-quality video to the screen. The feeds from the three camera positions shared the approximately 8 Mbps of bandwidth available in the network.

"It's like we're going from Betamax quality down to VHS with this particular configuration," Clinch explains. "But if I'd had a second [COR-II] router and could allot each individual camera a full 4 Mbps, we could have driven up the quality of the video."

Even still, it was a hit.

Clinch received enquiries from other rowing regatta organizers. Avaya has already provided a similar set-up to cover the Head of the Charles regatta in Boston in October.

Some video production companies told Clinch they may be able to sell enterprises on the idea of using the Avaya Wi-Fi set-up to cover corporate events.

Enterprises have often asked these companies about Olympic-style coverage of events but always backed off when they discovered how expensive it was using broadcast-standard equipment and microwave links.

The Wi-Fi set-up could never provide the same quality as a true broadcast set-up, Clinch says. But it could provide good enough quality for corporate applications.

Another possibility, he suggests, is sending the H.323 feed to an Internet POP and pumping it out as streaming video on the Web.

Avaya is now looking at selling the system as a turnkey solution. Clinch estimates the cost of each camera station - exclusive of PC and camera - at about $2,000. The command center would cost a little more.

This is unquestionably a very cool use of the technology, and we're thinking there must be other applications for it. Hmmm. But what?

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