Splashometer Unplugged

13/08/12
Piero Splashometer

As the glow of the Olympic brilliance starts to simmer down a stadium sized cheer to not only all the athletes, but also the folks behind the scenes.

A big congratulations to our three Olympic Piero users – NBC, NHK and host broadcaster BBC. They all deserve medals for their pioneering use of new analysis and new graphics to bring more colour, more excitement and more clarity to their audiences. The production of the Olympics is unlike any sports production in the world and at the outset there was lots of clever troubleshooting to get everything running as desired. There were also a number of brand new effects which, despite all of the testing on Beijing tapes and even some preliminary events, couldn’t be fully field tested until the heat of the battle.

By far the most prominent effect for Piero was the ‘Splashometer’. Used by both NBC and BBC to enhance the Diving coverage, it inspired a torrent of commentary. The Atlantic wrote “The Wonderful Technology of the Olympics Broadcast” (“a splash-o-meter that looks like the health bar in a video game. It's all terrific.”). But the noisiest clamour came from the Twitter gallery with hundreds of Tweets. Applause, cat-calls, and simply quizzical ‘huhs?’. It even has its own hashtag ‘#splashometer’.

For all of those questions that have flooded in, here are some answers…

“There's Really some sh*t called a Splashometer??!! Really?!” – Samuel L. Jackson

Yes! Perhaps our shining moment of glory was getting smacked down by none other than Samuel L. Jackson (the engineers are working on a ‘slamometer’ and his heavily retweeted comment would definitely be in the red zone complete with his signature expletive).

“Where did this Splashometer come from? #Olympics” - owenshill

The Splashometer originated from a brainstorming session at BBC R&D. Two of their engineers, Martin Nicholson and Robert Dawes, were able to put together a prototype to show how it would work. BBC R&D and Piero were joint winners of the Queen’s Award for Innovation last year (we think that the splashometer warrants a knighthood, don’t you?). BBC shared the idea and code with us, it had just that mixture of quirky fun and technical sophistication that often make for a good bit of spice to a production so we started showing it to the various Olympic broadcasters. NBC wanted to invest strongly in the Diving production this Olympics and the sport of Diving doesn’t have a lot of tools and special effects. They weren’t really sure how it would go over, but they like the other Piero tools and thought that the whole toolset could help illustrate some of the finer points and make for a more satisfying experience. So, one of our developers, Steve Walmsley, took on the project of engineering and refining the BBC prototype to something broadcast ready.

“OK, but how does the splashometer WORK?” – Phrenopolis

We count the white pixels. Sounds simple? It needs to exclude white T-shirts in the crowd and reflections of light on the water, plus calculate how zoomed in the camera is. Most importantly, it has to be done really, really fast. The Splashometer operates in real time. Since most broadcast video is about 25 frames per second, the system has about 1/25th of a second to analyse the splash. As with all of these technologies, the basic function is very straightforward, but the complexities of the real world require the engineering. For example, after a splash, a big cauldron of bubbles arises from the water. These are not part of the splash, but appear as a big group of new white pixels to the computer. As a result, we needed to develop a ‘cut detection’ method so the Splashometer could calculate when the splash was over and to ignore any further white pixels. Making the whole thing easy to use and flexible was critical. Over the course of the competition, Piero analysed 1,692 dives for NBC. Furthermore, there are all sorts of filming complications like different cameras being used from different angles and how the cameraman is shooting each dive all need to be accommodated and calibrated to ensure consistency and accuracy.

“@officialroycey A splashometer measures the height of the splash the divers make when entering the pool” - EmilyDukuNy

Actually, it measures the total ‘size’ of the splash (see above).

“I could never be a diver. My boobs would make the splashometer go off the scales.” - sinead
“@MadelineHere diving... love the splashometer, but not as much as seeing a diver glide smoothly through the surface of the water.” – Supergirl

Actually, minimizing the splash size is as much an art form, specialized skill and feat of athleticism as any other part of the dive. We at Piero thought that the big, hulky men divers would be at a disadvantage to the petite women, but NBC Diving Analyst Cynthia Potter explained that the size of the body is the not the key thing. ‘Punching a hole in the water’ is the key thing. We thought that when you dove, you would point your fingers sharply down to slice yourself into the water (like Supergirl’s comment). Cynthia explained that what a diver really wants to do is flatten their palms as they enter the water to push the water away and create a ‘hole’ in the water for their shoulders (and any other parts of their body) to go through (she highlighted a good example of this at the USA Olympic Diving Trials in Seattle). When done properly, the body is through the ‘hole’ and is closes up behind the diver with a minimal water going into the air. A great entry even has a tell-tale sound (kind of like a ‘kachunk’) when this is executed properly.

“Can we really trust the splashometer?” – Ken
“Exactly how scientific is the splashometer?” – Morgan_L_Nelson

You can trust it in that it is a completely automated process based on a computer algorithm objectively applied to what it observes. We wouldn’t want to rate dives on it because there are a number of noise factors which can and could affect a meter ‘score’ (eg. a camera flash could be misinterpreted as part of the splash). But we did go through an exhaustive testing process with the production team and analyst to make sure that the readings were accurately reflecting the dives within a small tolerance of noise. The team were scruntinising dives at the end of the day and asking things like ‘The splashometer said 26, but shouldn’t that one be more like a 27?’).

“This diving lark needs a Splashometer for rating dives.” – Steve Ellis

In the early days of developing the splashometer, the team ran a quick correlation to between the (a) splashometer scores, and (b) the judges overall scores. The results was an impressive 80%+ correlation. Actually, such alignment is not surprising. In many ways, the ‘entry’ is the culmination of the dive. For a splash to be small, pretty much everything leading up to it need to be spot on (though a diver will get marked off for style things in mid-air like pointed toes or steadiness of headstand). Conversely, when things go wrong, it might not be obvious I mid-dive, but when the athlete hits the water, all is revealed.

“I want to be the guy that runs the Splashometer at the Olympics. Lol” – @BMX_Union
“Is there even any real technology involved in NBC's "splashometer" for these diving events or is it just a fat dude with a dial? #Olympics” – Myleskillonious

Those guys would be Steve Poynter and Sean Hosking who have been sequestered in their broadcast booths since before the Opening Ceremonies. They are both very trim.

“I want to operate the Olympic diving Splashometer in 2016.” - fordesmiff

Piero is hiring, and we are always on the lookout for good operators (we provide training and support to an army of freelance operators around the world) to work with our customers and partners.

“@clarebalding1 @mermhart @eyemcd where does one purchase a splashometer? One would love one for one's bath #TomDaley #TEAMGB” - Karen

Red Bee Media Piero is the only company to sell a Splashometer for sports broadcasting analysis. Piero does work with any professional video from Broadcasters to Clubs (e.g Fulham FC & Liverpool FC). If you don’t have the money for a broadcast/video tool there is always this more basic version available from Aviva.

Tags: Olympics 2012, Diving, Splash-o-meter, Features, Technical