When football teams from Brazil and Croatia run out on the pitch in São Paulo tonight for the first game of the Fifa World Cup, they will kick off one of the biggest sporting events in history.
But it is the combination of technology from companies such as Sony and GE that will bring the World Cup to billions around the world.
The cumulative television audience for the world’s largest football tournament is estimated to top 3 billion. The final at Rio de Janeiro’s Estádio do Maracanã on July 13 could be one of the most watched TV broadcasts in history.
For the first time, matches will be recorded in ultra-high definition (aka super-high definition), which requires an average 34 cameras per game. Japan’s struggling TV makers are hoping the key to their rescue can be found through the ultra-HD resolution offering.
In the lead up to the World Cup, sales of big-screen televisions with ultra-high definition 4K technology have picked up at the electronics retailers, and their fatter profit margins are offering a lifeline to one-time industry giants such as Sony and Panasonic.
Following testing at the FIFA Confederations Cup last summer, Sony and FIFA announced that one match from the round of 16 (to be held on 28 June), one quarter-final (on 4 July), and the final (on 13 July) at the Estadio Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro will be filmed and broadcast in 4K resolution which displays horizontal resolution in the order of 4,000 pixels.
Sony claim the technology, which is four times the definition of HD, will fully capture the dynamism of each goal, enhance the expressions on players’ faces and capture the vivid detail of each stadium.
In a briefing at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Los Angeles last year, Chris Cookson, president of technology at Sony Pictures, said that 4K would be mainstream within a couple of years.
“I think once the larger sized screens are available in 4K then it will be as hard to find a 1080p large display as it is today a 720p large screen, which just a few years ago was the standard for what we classed as Hi-def. It’s exciting times,” he said.
Looking forward to utilising your 4K TV for the World Cup… Think again
So one would think from the press release from Fifa and Sony that those lucky enough to already have a 4K TV will be enjoying the beautiful game in the best possible format imaginable.
According to The Verge, there’s just one problem — if you’ve gone out to buy a 4K TV in preparation for the World Cup, you won’t actually be able to watch a single game in the ultra-HD format. At least, not live and not in the way you would want and expect.
The three matches that will actually be filmed in the format will form part of the official World Cup documentary movie, which you’ll be able to download at some point after the tournament is over. Brazilian network Globo will also screen these games on outdoor 4K displays in Rio de Janeiro. But there won’t be any live streaming or broadcasts to the home, meaning anyone planning to watch the tournament on their new 4K set will have to make do with regular 720p channels.
The BBC will stream the matches in 4K but only to a limited number of TVs at BBC sites, hopefully paving the way for a more widespread adoption of the technology.
One of the biggest challenges of distributing UHD TV to the home is how to make it compatible with existing broadcast and broadband capacities.
Users need speeds of around 20Mbps (megabits per second) in order to watch 4K content without glitches, experts say.
“It’s a good idea for the BBC to trial these things and the results on a large screen look impressive but it also needs to be realistic about the potential to push this across current broadcast networks,” said Toby Syfret, an analyst at Enders research group.
Lighting the way
Despite the lack of bandwidth to display 4K, GE is helping make the pictures pop regardless of the resolution with the use of its lighting system that will illuminate the pitch at five of the 12 tournament stadiums, including the Maracanã.
Although, it seems the Chinese whispers surrounding the extent to which the 4K format will be used at the World Cup were shared with GE too who wrote in its press release about stadium lighting at the tournament that: ‘For the first time, all of the tournament’s 64 matches will be televised in ultra-high definition.’
Regardless of the misinformation, GE promises that the lights’ optics and tight focus eliminate shadows on the field. They also generate high-intensity light near the natural spectrum so that the Brazilian national jerseys will truly look canary yellow on the green grass. “We would be in trouble if they looked orange,” says lighting engineer Sergio Binda, who works as a marketing director at GE Lighting Latin America. “The light must look authentic. Fans around the world should feel like they are in the stands when they turn on their TVs.”
The lighting team worked closely with scientists at GE Global Research to develop precise and highly efficient flood lights that make colors look natural. “Light is electromagnetic radiation and each color corresponds to a specific wavelength,” Binda says. “We see colors when those wavelengths bounce off a specific surface, like a jersey. But if your light source does not generate, say, a true red wavelength, then it can’t bounce off and you won’t see that color on the jersey.”
The lights that GE installed at the stadiums use electric metal halide lamps that emit light very close to the near-perfect white light produced by incandescent light bulbs. But they are much more efficient and durable.
Each fixture holds a reflector with a mirror-like aluminium coating and a special glass lens that trains the light beam on a specific point on the pitch. “The lamp and the optics are the secret sauce,” Binda says. “We use special software to achieve the best geometry and increase the intensity of the lamp.”
Each of the five stadiums – besides Maracanã they include arenas in Porto Allegre, Brasília, Manaus and Fortazela – has about 400 lights. It takes about three days for GE workers to focus them on the field. They tune two lights at a time, one from each side. They train them at a point on a special matrix superimposed on the field and then measure their output with a handheld luminometer. “It’s almost a perfect lighting down there,” Binda says.
GE is an old hand in sports lighting. In 1927, GE lights illuminated the first night game ever played in Major League Baseball. On Friday, May 24, 1935, a crowd of 20,000 people watched the Cincinnati Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies 2-1. I wonder if the public were promised they would be able to watch it on TV in full colour?