Feature Article - March 2007
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Grand-Slam Scoreboards

Entertainment & timing technology come together

By Brian Summerfield

Now, the (sort of) bad news

Given all of the new and sophisticated technology involved with modern scoreboards—above all, the LED Matrix scoreboards, which employ some of the most advanced display technologies—coming up with the right solutions can be a rather complicated affair. The scoreboards of today have so many complex elements going into them, ranging from video recording to timing systems to graphical layouts. Of course, the level and frequency of use of these components will vary from venue to venue.

Martens reported that he had encountered many such trials since the scoreboard and its accessories had been installed in Vincennes University's gymnasium late last year.

"The biggest challenge has been getting the static advertisements formatted so they look correct, not distorted, on the board," he said. "Also, we've been getting the video techniques down to where they look good on the board. What I mean by that is that the pixel spacing we have is 12 millimeters, which, if you're shooting half-court in a basketball situation with a camera, the images are going to be grainy and it's going to be hard to tell who is who. But if you take tight shots, the picture is very crisp, clear and sharp. Those are things we're having to work on internally with our camera operators, because this is different from what they're used to doing. In television, you can get away with shooting wider shots, but with video, you have to have tighter shots. It's also challenging to get the pre-loaded graphics and animations in the right format, but we've worked through that. Things are a lot better now than they were three months ago."

Implementation also can be complicated, as it requires a complex division of labor, Diericks added. "It can sometimes be a problem getting them installed—the cost does not include installation," he said. "We try to do that ourselves, with the help of some local people who have some equipment that can help us lift those into place for us. It involves getting all that lined up at the right time and coordinating it so that everything's up and running by a particular date."

One particularly problematic issue is timing technology. The people operating the scoreboard need to be able to get certain graphics, sounds and animations up as soon as possible during and after significant moments in games, ceremonies and other events. They should have the ability to show a player's picture and profile immediately following an exceptional athletic feat, a list of top graduates in a class, an animated ad from a sponsor and various other visual impressions. The window of time after a significant occurrence or announcement is very small, and the corresponding image on the scoreboard has to appear as close to those as possible to have an emotional impact on the audience.

Thus, the communications system between the scoreboard and its operator ought to be of utmost concern to the person in charge of procurement. Speed, reliability and appearance are all key factors in decisions around timing systems and the communications that run them.

One tricky decision is whether to use wired or wireless signals. Wireless is definitely hot right now, but it has a few issues that you must be prepared to deal with. First of all, you must factor in the size of the facility. A wireless signal degrades over distance, and if a scoreboard is going to be far away from the operator, the message might not always get there. Also, these signals are highly susceptible to interference. Compounding these problems are the myriad physical obstructions in both indoor and outdoor environments.

Alternatively, wired scoreboards are virtually unfailing, providing the "five nines" (99.999 percent) of availability to which any technology aspires. The rare occasions when these systems don't work include if there's a power outage or a lightning strike, or if the wires physically degrade over time. And this takes quite a while: The actual equipment is much more durable and long-lasting than fragile wireless tools.

Yet the wireless technologies provide a certain portability and flexibility that wired ones can't match. Because of the nature of the latter, the scoreboards they run on are stationary, whereas wireless boards are transportable. Wireless technologies "free" scoreboards, allowing facilities directors to bring in various kinds to suit their needs. (Obviously, installation is less expensive and problematic, if somewhat precarious because of the breakable gear.) They also have a minimal impact on their surroundings, unlike stationary scoreboards that require alterations to structures or land to accommodate the wiring.

Most facility directors don't have the sophisticated knowledge of video, audio, computer software and graphic design that today's scoreboards need to be effective. In fact, very few people at all do. So how can you resolve a lack of understanding with the need to provide attendees with the most engaging and exciting scoreboard displays?