A standard Google search of the terms ‘rail cam’ will yield results related to railway stations across the world. However, for those working in sports technology or broadcasting, the words ‘rail cam’ have an entirely different meaning.
Rail cams have nothing to do with trains. Instead, they’re a series of high-definition cameras that are set atop tracks (much like a train) that travels down a court to capture live sporting action.
In the realm of video production, rail cams are a standard feature. In popular sitcoms and blockbuster action flicks alike, these are known as ‘camera dollys’ and are used to get the renowned ‘dolly shot’.
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Much like rail cams used for sports broadcasting, these dolly shots are designed to create steady movement across a wide range of space as a scene pans out. In the sports world, rail cams are gaining steam in leagues with smaller playing fields, like the NBA.
The rail cams used at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex for the NBA Finals Series this summer brought viewers a new look at their favorite sport. Given the finals series took place without spectators, broadcasters sought to reinvent the viewing experience.
Because fans couldn’t be in-person spectators, they instead got in on the action by following the latest NBA betting tips and games online or creating fantasy leagues with friends. The rail cam, despite its newness, helped viewers feel even closer to the action by simulating a courtside experience.
From the Boogermobile to Rail Cams
In 2015, rail cams made their debut in the sports world via CBS Sports and Turner Sports. The first systems were put in place at the court boundaries for NBA games. The fixed rails allowed the cameras to reach speeds of 25 mph while following the live-action via remote controls.
The idea was partially informed by ESPN analyst Booger McFarland. During his time at Monday Night Football (a program hosted by ESPN), the pundit was given an elevated chair that helped him catch the action from an eagle-eye view.
The chair became known as the ‘Boogermobile’ and was, apparently, at least partly influential in the adaption of dolly cams into courtside rail cams. In fact, one of the main reasons rail cams haven’t taken off is that they still require courts and fields to be on an elevated surface (much like the Boogermobile).
And, though the original Boogermobile was meant to offer analysts a clearer view of the action for them to do their work, the modern rail cam is more about the fan experience. Aforementioned, the most recent forays into rail cam technology at the NBA Finals at Disney World were designed with fans in mind.
More specifically, rail cams are being used to transformed remote viewership by incorporating virtual and augmented reality functions. That means that those remotely viewing footage captured by rail cams are likely looking at a 3D or virtual game.
As ESPN expands into more bundled offerings, they won’t be the only broadcasting group interested in offering such exclusive and innovative viewing experiences for fans. A New Experience
At the moment, some fans are having trouble adjusting to the topsy-turvy visuals provided by rail cams. Though this difficult transition is expected as tech continues to make great leaps, ESPN has a ways to go before they use rail cams during live TV broadcasts.
At the moment, the ‘alternative view’ provided by rail cams is popular with younger viewers who are more familiar with VR and AR. Those who use the ESPN and NBA apps for exclusive access to games are also familiar with the new rail cam experience.
In addition to partnering with ESPN, the NBA has also recently joined with Microsoft to help bring rail cam angles to live TV. While the companies are focused on adapting rail cam footage for a live viewing experience, the long-term goals are clear: engage those on mobile devices.
As more streaming services shift toward mobile devices, the ultimate success of rail cam ventures will rely on streaming models that don’t require tons of bandwidth. Other challenges include how to utilize rail cams on both sides of the court.