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The Indianapolis 500: a remarkable test-case in the future of transmedia programming

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Sports are increasingly immersive, multi-screen, information-rich, participatory experiences, to an extent that most other forms of entertainment flatly envy.

Indy 500
Indy 500

Sports and sports media compose a gigantic global business. Neither are untouched by technology. In many respects, sports are leading the way in bringing live video and information to alternate computing devices both inside and outside the home. Apple, Microsoft, and the cable and telecom companies all agree that sports are a must-have. Whether it's tweeting taunts during World Cup soccer, streaming Major League Baseball to an iPad, or watching multiple college football games on a single screen using an Xbox 360, sports are increasingly immersive, multi-screen, information-rich, participatory experiences, to an extent that most other forms of entertainment flatly envy.

In this context, this weekend's Indianapolis 500 becomes a remarkable test case. It doesn't really matter if you don't care much about racing — you have to appreciate that no other sport so completely blends humans, machines, and media. Racers and their cars themselves become cyborg cameras. Nothing else is quite like that.

Racers and their cars become cyborg cameras. Nothing else in sports is quite like that

The Indy 500 is also fundamentally a live event. About six million people will probably watch the race on television, but as many as 400,000 will attend the race in person. It's an extremely challenging event to televise because of the size of the competing area, the number of participants, and the speed at which they're operating. In short, it makes the Super Bowl look like a singles tennis match.

Luckily, new technology offers new ways to record, broadcast, and watch television. And ABC and ESPN are taking advantage of almost all of them for this year's Indy 500.

Start with the cameras and the cars. "Anything that is developed for onboard cameras has to keep in mind weight, size and other factors because it can’t affect the race car’s performance," notes ESPN spokesman Andy Hall. 33 cars compete. ABC is covering them and their drivers and crews with 80 cameras, "including four onboard cameras per car in at least nine of the 33 cars competing in the race."

These cameras are wireless, obviously — and traditionally each car could only transmit a single view at any one time, with a director remotely switching between them and other cameras at the track. Now, though, ESPN and Broadcast Sports International have developed "dual-path technology" for use in NASCAR and now Indy races, beginning with the Indy 500. Dual-path transmissions permit high-definition wireless video from multiple cameras through a single stream. "When a crash is being replayed," says Hall, "viewers are now be able to see two different onboard points of view of a car involved or near the crash, such as the view of the wing camera, face camera or rearview camera."

So what do we do with all those extra camera feeds? ABC and ESPN will let viewers choose which viewpoints they wish to follow on their own, either on a second screen using or WatchESPN's site and apps, or on one screen using ESPN3 and Xbox Live

The same devices fans use to chat about the event, they can now use to control what they see

Suppose you have a favorite racer. Fan favorite Danica Patrick, who placed third at Indy in 2009, isn't racing this year, but three other women are: Ana Beatriz, Katherine Legge, and Simona de Silvestro. Canadians might want to cheer on their countryman James Hinchcliffe. Casual American fans might gravitate towards Marco Andretti's familiar family name.They could follow him throughout the entire race. It's wide open.

This isn't limited to racing or ABC / ESPN. In golf, The Masters has used a similar watch-what-you-want approach on its website. In the future, you could easily imagine switching between a behind-the-mound and behind-the-plate views in baseball, whole-field and close-to-the-action cameras for football, or alternating between favorite events at the Olympics.

The same technology that lets fans follow more than one sports event at once can now offer them multiple points of view on the same event. The same devices that they use to chat about the event, they can now use to control what they see.

Sports are leading the way in bringing live video to new devices both inside and outside the home

Unlike ABC's live broadcast of the Indy 500, or The Masters' cable-independent approach, this multiscreen experience isn't available to everybody. You need a computer, tablet, or Xbox console, plus a broadband or television subscription through a WatchESPN provider like Comcast, Verizon FiOS, Time Warner Cable, or Bright House. (ESPN's Hall estimates that includes about 40 million households.)

There are definitely still plenty of bottlenecks. Some of them are old media legacies, and some are new barriers that are being unnecessarily thrown up. There are plenty of people who would love to get access to a single event like this without a long cable subscription, and plenty of cable subscribers who don't care one whit about sports. No single approach can claim a monopoly on the future. Ironing out the business models and partnerships to make these events available to everyone who wants them is long overdue. But still, broadly speaking, these new technologies and new participatory and immersive experiences show the inevitable direction not just of sports, but of all broadcast programming.

It's going to bridge media production and consumption. It's going to be distributed, beginning but not ending with the television set. It's going to be modular, with different viewers adding and subtracting different elements. It's going to be particular, with fewer identical experiences of the same event. It's going to be both bigger and more visceral and offer more granular attention to data and details.

We're not just driving in circles; we're watching the future come alive.