January 14 saw an exciting new dimension to the annual All-Star Game staged by the B.LEAGUE, the new domestic men's pro basketball league that's taken Japan by storm. While the game itself was held in Kumamoto, cutting-edge technology was used to stage a simultaneous "next-generation live viewing" event at a remote site in Ebisu, Tokyo. Only 500 tickets were available for this unique experience, a world first. Reserved seats sold out in 15 minutes, with the remaining standing tickets gone in just three hours! The report below tells you what all the excitement was about. The Ebisu experiment showcased a whole new way to experience sport, one that promises to transform the sporting industry in Japan.
[Report from the B.LEAGUE All-Star Game 2018 next-generation live viewing event (dubbed "B.LIVE in Tokyo")]
All-star Game in Kumamoto Makes Waves Around the Nation
Launched in 2016, the B.LEAGUE has been a resounding success and its popularity continues to grow. The annual All-Star Game involves the very best players in the country, selected via a combination of online voting and league endorsements, pitting their skills against one other in two teams: B. Black versus B. White. This year's All-Star Game was just the second of the newly minted B.LEAGUE. It was staged at the Kumamoto Prefecture Sports Center as a contribution to the ongoing rebuilding effort following the April 2016 earthquake. The live viewing experiment in Tokyo was used to promote the All-Star Game concept, the B.LEAGUE and Kumamoto prefecture to a wider audience around Japan.
Cutting-edge Technology Combines Vision, Audio, Light and Vibration
B.LIVE is a next-generation approach to watching sporting events with family and friends, featuring cutting-edge technology that creates a much more immersive experience similar to a live concert or festival. The All-Star Game in Kumamoto was shown live at the B.LIVE venue in Ebisu, Tokyo in an immersive format with vision and audio augmented by lighting and vibration effects.
According to an executive board member of B.LEAGUE Kazumasa Ashihara, B.LIVE taps directly into the unique Japanese trait of enjoying and celebrating sporting and other events as part of a group. The key aim of B.LIVE was to harness the ability of technology to deliver a collective experience for those watching the event in Tokyo that would be similar if not better than experiencing it live in Kumamoto. "We are thrilled with the success of B.LIVE," he says. "We worked hard together with Fujitsu to produce an exciting new live viewing format that we think will resonate throughout the sporting industry." So what exactly is the "new viewing experience" promised by B.LIVE?
Technology Helps Remote Fans to Bond with the Game in Kumamoto through Shared Experiences in Real Time
The first thing that strikes you as you enter the venue is the gigantic 550-inch 4K screen that dominates the front of the room, with a live feed from the stadium at Kumamoto showing fans waiting excitedly for the start of the game.
A new ultra-realistic video delivery system featuring a special algorithm developed by Fujitsu was used to transmit video of the game from Kumamoto, some 1,300 km away, with a delay of just 0.3 to 2.0 seconds―in other words, virtually real-time. The Fujitsu algorithm switches the video quality level between speed mode and high-quality mode in accordance with the action on court in order to provide viewers with the best possible sensory experience. For those watching in Tokyo, it is as if they are sitting right there with the fans in Kumamoto sharing in all the excitement!
The opening act saw the court flooded with brightly colored lights as a troupe of energetic dancers officially welcomed the players onto the court, to rapturous applause from the assembled spectators in Kumamoto and Tokyo.
Connecting with the Players―the Sound Adds an Extra Dimension that Makes You Feel Like You're on Court!
And then, it was time for the game to start. What struck me most was the clarity of sound―the rhythmic tap, tap of the ball being dribbled, the squeaking of shoes across the court, the thud of players landing back on their feet after a rebound. You could actually feel the sounds reverberate through your body, and this added to the sense of realism, so that you truly felt like were there in the crowd at Kumamoto, or sprinting up and down the court with the players.
The soundscape was produced by an array of more than 52 directional microphones installed below the court surface, in the ceilings and at strategic courtside locations around the venue, capturing all the sounds of the game as well as the crowd reactions. The sound mix was then reproduced on 30 speakers deployed around the Tokyo venue, creating an impressive wall of noise like a festival.
This all-new approach to using enhanced sound reproduction to add a whole new dimension to sports viewing is made possible by Sound Intelligence, a sound design system jointly developed by Fujitsu and Yamaha. Sound Intelligence takes key sounds from directional microphones at strategically targeted points around the venue and blends them together to create a "three-dimensional soundscape" that faithfully reproduces the atmosphere and excitement of the original venue. The soundscape is continuously optimized to suit the action unfolding on court, providing a level of realism that sometimes is even better than watching it live! Spectators at the Tokyo venue were also treated to a number of exclusive experiences, such as the first ever use of ViReal, a three-dimensional real-time acoustic image shaping technology, by the MC during the live performance.
In addition, two Vibe Zones on either side of the venue allowed fans to experience the extra sensory input of vibrations that replicated player movements on court.
The Vibe Zones featured an all-new "sensory transfer" system developed by Fujitsu in conjunction with the Keio University Graduate School of Media Design. The system uses vibration to convey the sensation of players approaching or sprinting off during the countless transitions between offense and defense that are a key feature of basketball. Standing in the Vibe Zone, you can literally feel the offensive and defensive plays unfolding on court coming up through the soles of your feet―as if you're running up and down the court together with the players!
Connecting with the Fans―DJ and Special Effects Enhance the Match-day Experience
The experience was further enhanced by the use of video special effects to add extra impact to instant replays of key passages of play ("super-plays") such as a three-point shoot, dunk or alley-oop. Information such as player stats and titles was also displayed on the big screen.
The sound is an important of the total experience. The Tokyo venue featured a DJ whose job was to produce a multilayered soundscape of sound effects to match the action unfolding on court and whip up the crowd by inserting specific sounds such as a siren for a foul and an explosion after a slam dunk. The sound effects really helped to create a shared sense of excitement that brought the crowd together as one.
The match ended with the B. White team victorious, 123 to 111. Afterwards Shintaro Kobayashi, voted MVP of the match by the spectators, gave a short speech praising the national team players for coming to Kumamoto for a game that brought joy to so many. "Today's game was a great success and I'm sure we'll remember it for many years to come," he added, to thunderous cheers from enthusiastic audiences in both Kumamoto and Tokyo.
Using Technology to Revolutionize the Match-day Experience
Shortly after the ground-breaking live viewing event, I spoke to event organizer Hideki Koyama, General Manager of Business Planning and Promotion at the Sports and Culture Event Business Unit.
Two Years Planning this Ground-breaking Event for the B.LEAGUE
Fujitsu Journal: I think we can safely say that B.LIVE was a resounding success. Even though I was here as a reporter, I couldn't help but be moved by the experience. It was so exciting! Can you tell us a bit about how it all came about?
Koyama: It was two years ago that we first came up with the concept of producing a next-generation enhanced mode of engagement with live sporting events. We wanted to seize the initiative and create a new format that would signal a complete departure from the traditional idea of public viewing. We decided that our live viewing experience should feature sensory enhancements in the form of light, sound and vibration. It was not until about three months prior to the All-Star Game in Kumamoto that we decided that this would be the perfect to trial the live viewing format. The previous All-Star Game at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium had a crowd of 10,000, but Kumamoto doesn't have a venue that size. So the live viewing experiment was seen as an ideal way to deliver this key B.LEAGUE event to a wider audience.
A World First in the Sports and Entertainment Industry
Fujitsu Journal: What were the key elements of this world first live viewing experiment?
Koyama: I'd have to say the sound and the vision were the key elements. You have to give people a reason for coming out to the venue―an experience that you wouldn't get watching the TV at home, or that you wouldn't get even at the game itself. As this was our first attempt, we needed to make sure that we had enough bandwidth for the video. We had three lines from Kumamoto to Tokyo: a dedicated 100 Mbps line; a secondary 1 Gbps "best effort"* line; and a satellite link. There were so many technical aspects that were completely new to us, particularly the idea of manipulating the video in accordance with the on-court action and crowd reaction. We found that even the experimental 1 Gbps best effort line was stable enough to transmit high-quality 4K video signal to Tokyo in close to real time. Some packets were lost, but the clever Fujitsu algorithms in the video transmission equipment were able to correct the signal instantaneously with no noticeable impact on quality. On the audio side, we used Sound Intelligence, developed by Fujitsu and Yamaha together as a joint project, to generate a range of sound-triggered emotional inputs that allowed us to provide a holistic sensory experience in Tokyo to faithfully recreate the match day experience at Kumamoto. Organizing the event involved countless meetings with representatives of the B.LEAGUE, the Fujitsu Design Department, Yamaha and the Keio University Graduate School of Media Design, as well as advisors from the broadcast and event management industries. I'm pleased that we were able to overcome the many logistical and technical challenges to put on such a successful show.
- *:Transmission format that automatically adjusts transmission speed to accommodate fluctuations in network congestion and signal strength
Potential Application to Non-ball Sports Such as Martial Arts
Fujitsu Journal: In light of the success of the event, do you have plans to use this technology for other types of sporting events as well as the B.LEAGUE?
Koyama: First of all, I think the fact that the technology held up, didn't fail at any point, is one of the key takeaways from the event. To see the excitement at the venue and people having a great time―it brought home to me that we really have achieved something special, we've created a new way to enjoy sporting events.
We now have two main challenges. The first is to convert the live viewing experience into a viable profit-making exercise for the domestic basketball league. Clubs play 60 games per year, of which half (30) are away games. At the moment the clubs make no money at all from away games. Imagine if they could create a match-day experience for away games that would engage the fans and generate revenue at the same time. And there is potential for home games too. The fast-growing B.LEAGUE is already so popular that some teams have home sell-outs where their own fans can't even get hold of tickets. If building a bigger stadium is financially unviable, then a live viewing site might be the most cost-effective way to keep the home fans engaged.
The second challenge is to extrapolate this approach to other forms of competitive sport. We believe that by capturing the sound of the action with greater accuracy we can make the live viewing model attractive to a wide range of other sports―not just the obvious ones like volleyball and table tennis, but maybe some of the combative sports as well, such as boxing and pro-wrestling, where the sounds from inside the ring are central to enjoyment of the spectacle. With Fujitsu's advanced technology, we reckon we can revolutionize the sports industry in Japan.
The B.LEAGUE All-Stars game live viewing event was a spectacular demonstration of how technology can be used to enhance the enjoyment of sport. It was the product of the passion and enthusiasm of so many dedicated people from the B.LEAGUE and the wider sporting industry and elsewhere who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make it a success. The combination of ICT and sporting endeavor is sure to yield more exciting results in the future!