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The Life

December 10, 2002
Total Access: Screen Play
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Couch tubers rejoice. We have seen the future of sports TV -- at the Sportvision technology lab in Mountain View, Calif. -- and it is swank. You're probably already familiar with Sportvision's main claim to fame: the Emmy Award-winning yellow first-down line. (How did we live without it?) The firm also developed ESPN's K Zone, which tracks pitches in three dimensions as they cross the plate, and a hoops telestrator that lets analysts diagram plays on the court but "under" the players. Now, utilizing computers in ways we can only hope to grasp, Sportvision's engineers are eyeing the next great game-watching gimmick. What do they have in mind? And where do these minds come from, anyway? The answers to both queries are inside Sportvision's war room (it actually says "war room" on the door). Brace yourself.

Would you forget about the puck already! How cool is that 1st down line?
It started very badly. As a News Corp. minion in 1996, engineer Stan Honey conceived the hate-it-or-loathe-it glowing puck for Fox's NHL broadcasts. Undeterred by purists who wanted his head, he teamed with News Corp. biz wiz Bill Squadron to start Sportvision in 1998. Redemption soon followed.

Sportvision's coolest innovation? Our vote goes to a recently introduced Internet application that lets NASCAR fans track their favorite car, including up-to-the-moment info about rpm, speed, throttle and brake. Coming soon: a wireless version that will enable gearheads to get the same data on their cell. Gives new meaning to the phrase "dialed in."

Who says engineers can't let loose? Honey recently navigated a 125-foot catamaran on a west-to-east trans-Atlantic voyage. VP of product development Rick Cavallaro flies hang gliders and copters. As for the company's 15 lab rats? They roll out this portable hoop whenever they're stressin'.

The Sportvision crew spends weeks on the road testing its systems -- and they've got the booty to show for it. No one admits to heisting the parking meter or street signs. But everyone crows about one thing: "We have a pretty good pom-pom collection," says senior software engineer Alon Mozes.

Engineers don't have all the answers. That's why Sportvision has an advisory council to bounce ideas off of -- including MLB Hall of Famer Rod Carew, Niners coach Steve Mariucci and Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming. The give-and-take can take a while. Explains Cavallaro: "We time our conference calls by how many pretzel kegs we go through."

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    Some of Sportvision's ideas are genius. Some make Teddy Ruxpin look like a genius. Among the DOAs: systems that measure home runs, the speed of a flying football and ballers' verts. "Really, they don't jump very high," says engineer Ken Milnes. Clearly, Arvydas Sabonis is one of their advisers.

    Sportvision's engineers have impressive backgrounds: aerospace, nuclear fusion, navigational research. So why this? Because the gig is as cool as it sounds, and not just to the lucky folks who work there. Says 24-year-old Andrew Robbins: "This is one of the few computing jobs you can actually talk to people about in a bar."

    Think your current remote's high-tech? Wait until you see what Sportvision has in store. With the remote of tomorrow, you'll be able to customize what you see. Don't like the first-down marker? Click. Wanna zoom in on a team's huddle? Click. Wanna see what the camera up in the blimp sees? Click. Just be sure to watch your back. "People will end up in jail fighting over the remote," says Cavallaro. He's joking. We think.

    This article appears in the December 23 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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