Super Bowl XLVI: Know Your Yellow Line

When my family gathers with friends to watch the Super Bowl, this year I’ll be bringing the chili, cornbread, and onion dip.

And when broadcasters gather to beam the Super Bowl to a hundred million viewers, this year a company called SMT, formerly SportsMedia Technologies, will be bringing the yellow line.

But I can't take credit for my chili recipe (though I have to say my additions of beer and cocoa powder are a really nice touch), and SMT can't take credit for the yellow line; that technology was first created by Sportvision Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. Sportvision introduced the yellow line to TV viewers in 1998; it got the Emmy in 2000. To viewers, it seemed like magic—many thought that somehow chalk was being applied to the field and quickly vacuumed up. Sportvision quickly had competitors, like PVI, a company that was absorbed by Sportvision in 2010, and SMT, which, after a series of lawsuits, started paying license fees to Sportvision in 2007.

I saw the system from behind the scenes at a San Francisco 49ers game in 2003, when I profiled the company and the engineers who developed the technology—many of whom came out of the defense industry. Back then it took four or more operators and banks of computers to get that yellow line onto the screen; these days the whole system can be run by one person, and the number of computers has been stripped down as well. And both the companies that now produce yellow lines have added features, like virtual team logos that appear to be painted on the field.

Sportvision, meanwhile, has expanded far beyond football, developing virtual technology for enhancing broadcasting of baseball, basketball, golf, hockey, Nascar, and other sports. And IEEE Member Stan Honey, who cofounded the company, just took on a new challenge—he’s been named director of technology for the 34th America’s Cup, and he’s promising to change the America’s Cup viewing experience with onboard cameras, lapel microphones, and yes, virtual lines.

But back to the Super Bowl. If you want to impress your friends on Sunday with your detailed knowledge about how the yellow line works, the “big failure” that preceded it, and why the occasional bit of line ends up looking like it is chalked over a player’s foot, check out Spectrum’s “All in the Game.”

Photo: IEEE Member Stan Honey was the force behind the creation of the yellow football line. He’s now working to revolutionize the way we watch sailing, as director of technology for the 34th America’s Cup.

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