In the late 90s, there was a lot of pressure on photography agencies. It seemed likely that sports rights holders would lock out photographers – and create/sell their own photography. We pursued a strategy to work closer with these rights holders – and provide them with solutions that might benefit their business.
Hutchison 3G had just paid £35 million for exclusive rights to deliver video clips from FA Premier League matches on to their new mobile phones. Many other operators were introducing colour screen handsets – and Vodafone were having some success with their Vodafone Live! service. Added to this, one of the most popular services on mobile were SMS text alerts for goals being scored in matches.
In an earlier post, I talked about how many people it took to send a picture back in the mid-80s. At the end of the 90s, the photographer did everything – from taking the picture to cropping, captioning and transmitting. Photographers were adept at this, but the process was neither quick enough or clean enough to integrate with a timely service to mobile phones. I wanted to see if we could break the process back down in to its component parts – and then speed it up to deliver a picture of a sports incident in double-quick time.
We had an excellent team at EMPICS to help develop this. People like Dan Winters, the CTO (who also came up with the catchier ShootLive name) and steered the project. We also developed partnerships with Nikon, who helped us with remote cameras, and Toshiba who provided wireless technology and super-light (for the time) laptops. There were rights holders like Manchester United, Arsenal, Sandown Park Racecourse, Nottingham Forest, The Open Golf Championship and the Football League who gave us access to their venues.
The process allowed the photographer to focus on taking pictures. They were either wirelessly connected (or connected via Firewire) to a laptop which was closed and in a bag. This computer took their motor-driven sequences of pictures and sampled them down to a small resolution. These low resolution images were large enough to be cropped and feature on websites and mobile phone screens. Back at base (which could be anywhere) the images arrived on an editor’s screen in less than 10 seconds from camera click. The timestamped images were cropped, colour corrected and captioned within another 10 seconds – and could then be transmitted on to websites and phones. The crops and alterations made on the edit station were relayed back to the photographer’s laptop in the bag – and the high resolution file was then processed and transmitted for use by our newspaper clients.
At an event, there could be as many as 14 cameras sending in images in this way. So we had to develop the code that would process the images from the photographer – plus the edit station and server to handle the processing of the images back at base. Finally, at the end of the event, all original image files were archived and relayed back to base (either on DVD or via high-speed broadband).
We spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on the development. In 2003, we won the national CBI/Real Business award for Technology in Business supported by Vodafone. At a similar time, we were approached by the Press Association. They were interested in our technology to support the successful sports data business they had created, PA Sport. They acquired EMPICS in 2004 – and a significant part of the price they paid was down to the development of ShootLive.
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