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High tech comes off sidelines for bowl

Amid the hype of college football's first sanctioned national title game, ESPN and ABC deliver several new convergence technologies.

Late in the second quarter of last night's collegiate football championship contest between Tennessee and Florida State, the Seminoles faced fourth and inches from the six-yard line.

Playing an online strategy game in conjunction with the TV broadcast, thousands of Net users predicted a quarterback sneak. Then the audience estimated whether Florida State signal caller Marcus Outzen indeed gained enough yardage by measuring his progress against a computer-generated yellow stripe superimposed on the playing field.

Amid the hype of college football's first sanctioned national title game, ESPN and ABC delivered several new convergence technologies.

The most prominent, called 1st and Ten, is a bright line that stretches across the field, signaling the position of first-down markers relative to the ball in play. Recently seen in the NFL, 1st and Ten sounds simple but four high-end Unix systems and four production staffers are needed to generate the image, which isn't visible to fans at the game.

The first system maps a 3D image of the field (which is not flat but actually raised in the center to help drainage). The second system works with TV's three main cameras, taking 30 measurements of the cameras' usage per second. A third system is needed to understand which game camera is in use.

The final system actually projects the line, accommodating players' uniforms (teams in grass-hued green can be confusing), irregularities in the playing surface (Astroturf is easier), shadows, and so on.

In its first year, 1st and Ten requires a separate production truck, but by next season it will fit into racks that can be incorporated into a standard unit, according to Bill Squadron, the former News Corporation executive who's now chief executive of SporTVision.

"Outside in a snowstorm will really test us," he jokes, noting that 1st and Ten passed a real challenge this fall when heavy rain so disrupted a Kansas City game that the field became a bog and play was stopped.

ESPN has exclusive rights to the technology for the 1998-99 season (the license allows for sister company ABC to use 1st and Ten), but already last weekend CBS was using similar technology. Look for it to gain more ground next season.

Also last night, ESPN formally launched its Enhanced TV programming, a similarly production-heavy feature that offers both statistical material pushed to Web users and online play calling, for users to guess which offensive player would be featured in any given play.

After heavy promotion and several beta tests during ABC Monday Night Football games, Enhanced TV's debut was a success, ESPN's Eric Handler said, noting that the site "passed our capacity very early--right after kickoff." No usage figures were available.

The feature's popularity shows there is a "huge audience of multitaskers out there--people with two boxes in the same room," Handler said.

But some users (including CNET News.com) couldn't make use of the full complement of the technology because of firewall blockage or browser incompatibility. ESPN planned to make samples of last night's production available today on its site. And some readers complained of glitches.

About 25 staffers began preparing two weeks ago, according Handler. Most of the pre-production work involved research and graphics, and most of the staff worked remotely from New York.

One key to blending Enhanced TV with ABC's broadcast of the Tennessee-Florida State game was the cooperation of Walt Disney properties involved. ESPN, ABC, and Infoseek are all part of the Disney family.