Video: BallCam Puts Football Fans on the Field

Charles Murray

March 5, 2013

3 Min Read
Video: BallCam Puts Football Fans on the Field

Football fans are about to get the ultimate view of their favorite sport.

A prototype device known as the BallCam might one day enable them to see the action from the ball's point of view, providing a different perspective when a pass sails into the hands of a receiver or a punt falls into the arms of a returner. Amazingly, it would also eliminate any confusion in the image caused by the rotation of the ball, thus giving a clean, uninterrupted view from an insider vantage point.

"It's really the right time for this," Kris Kitani, a post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute who co-developed the system, told Design News. "If you could watch a defender battling with a wide receiver and see the drama of that split-second action, it would be awesome from the spectator's point of view."

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Indeed, the BallCam would provide viewers with an experience unlike anything that's been available previously. To create that experience, Kitani worked with visiting researchers at the Robotics Institute and from the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo. Together, they embedded a single GoPro Hero2 camera in a rubber-sheathed, plastic foam football, then wrote software to make the spinning images usable.

The software is the key, Kitani said. Because a spiraled pass from a quarterback can rotate at a surprising rate of 600 rpm, images from inside the ball would be useless without software to make sense of it all. The research team addressed that by employing techniques such as image stitching, feature extraction, and feature matching, then wrapping them together in a software package.

As a result, the BallCam is able to extract video frames that are pointing in the wrong direction, and keep those that are pointing in the correct direction. It accomplishes that by looking for the sky in every frame.

"When the camera points toward the sky, the image is really bright, and when it points down, the image is darker," Kitani told us. "So if you look at the brightness of each video frame and plot it over time, the output looks like a nice, clean sine wave."

During operation, the BallCam doesn't process the images on board. Instead, it captures 60 frames per second and then lets an off-board computer do the processing. Kitani said the team employed a MacBook Pro, but added that any notebook computer would suffice. He said the team did not write the algorithms for a parallel processing environment, but could easily do so if an application called for faster results.

To be sure, the technology faces hurdles. The camera, which is about one-third the size of an iPhone, must be covered by a clear plastic material in order to be incorporated in a football, making it impossible for it to be used officially in its current embodiment. The ability of the camera to stand up to the punishment of football is not in question, however, since the same hardware has previously been used on football helmets and spearfishing masks, as well as in the jaws of polar bears, sharks, and alligators.

For now, Kitani foresees it being employed for highlight films, training purposes, and sports science studies. It might also see use in soccer balls. "The technology is there," he said. "The cameras are durable and lightweight. You could embed multiple cameras inside a ball, transmit the images wirelessly, and create an all-new experience for spectators."

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About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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