World Cup tech: HD, mobile, and web TV makes Cup hard to miss

With the FIFA World Cup set for kickoff at 11:55AM EST today, most of us Americans are still sitting around scratching our heads trying to figure out how to pronounce Pelé, and whether we'd be offending anybody if we just called football "soccer" so things are less confusing. Turns out we are very alone in this predicament, since in 2002 the World Cup nabbed a total TV viewership of 29 billion, with 1.1 billion people viewing Brazil's defeat of Germany in the finale. The tournament takes place among 32 teams over the course of a month, and is being hosted by Germany this time around -- who have built or retrofitted 12 stadiums to host the 64 matches. Suffice it to say that this is the biggest sporting event in the world, making our American football's Super Bowl look quite minuscule by comparison. And what better way to celebrate this month of sporting excess than to round up all the tech it entails? If you need a bit more convincing, we recommend Larry Dobrow's "The Ignorant American's Guide to the World Cup," and if that doesn't help, might we remind you of the decent chance of celebratory and/or irate crazed-fan rioting -- brought to you live in HD?

While there are a myriad of ways to actually receive live TV of the matches all over the world, the main source for all this video is a team-up of HBS and Deutsche Telekom's T-Systems Media&Broadcast. HBS (Host Broadcast Services) is a dedicated organization set specifically to produce TV and radio coverage of the tournament, and they're all set with a staff of 2,000 to produce live 16:9, SD, PAL, and HDTV coverage from all 12 stadiums. The 1080i/50 MPEG-2 signals alone run at 1,485Mbps, with a minimum of 20 HDTV cameras running for each match. That's where T-Systems Media&Broadcast steps in: pumping out all that data. They'll be on the scene with ISDN, Ethernet, WiFi, DSL, EDGE, UMTS and HSDPA to shoot HBS signals to the International Broadcast Centre master control in Munich, and to manage all the other data from the 15,000 or so press people on the scene. From the IBC, the video and audio "pool feed" gets shipped off to more than 180 broadcasters worldwide. You think we're done? Not a chance, click on!

No insanely popular sporting event would be complete these days without some beefy security, and Germany seems to have that in spades as well. Along with 2,000 active troops and 150,000 ready-to-eat meals just in case of some sort of worst-case scenario, the stadiums themselves have been rigged up with all manner of security. Siemens has done a lot of the work, implementing fire, smoke, and motion detectors in discreet ways; so as to not mar the historic look of many of the stadiums, they've embedded much of their technology in stadium roofing. Tickets are RFID embedded with name, address, birth date, etc. to prevent "black market" ticket sales, and are checked against a database as fans pass through the entrance gates. Stadiums also have cameras to record biometric facial features, and there's even technology in place to monitor and correct traffic flow leading to and from the stadiums.

Of course, most of us will end up watching these games from the comfort of our own homes, or the home of a buddy with a larger TV than us who splurged for the last Super Bowl. So the real story is how to acquire those HD feeds. Sadly, it's a bit of a mixed bag for us in the States, since the coverage is split between ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 --not all of which are available in HD in all markets. ESPN2 which will probably be getting a good chunk of games, including the first US game on June 12th (yes, we're playing in this crazy tournament as well, and we might not even be half bad!). Full domestic coverage listings can be found here.

HD coverage of the World Cup should be a bit more pervasive in places like the UK, where you can get the BBC and ITV's shared coverage through NTL Telewest's cable service, or via the new Sky HD if you were lucky enough to have it installed in time. Even better for British soccer fans is BBC's free streaming of most games live via the web. We have ESPN360 in the US, but it's only available via certain internet providers, and its game coverage will be minimal. Wired has an interesting article detailing a few slightly shadier methods to nab streaming coverage of the games -- which we neither condone nor condemn -- but are particularly intrigued by the idea of using a proxy to access the BBC site for their streams. All in all, while 2006 might not be the year of absolutely pervasive HD World Cup coverage, there shouldn't be too many moments that will require the avid football fan to be away from a live feed of the games -- especially with services like Slingbox and Orb to fill in the gaps. Hence, businesses (including our own) are predicting an incredibly unproductive month.

One method of coverage that we're surely not going to be getting much of in the States is in the form of mobile TV. While Verizon, Sprint, and Cingular are all probably due for some downloadable clips, nobody is ready for live mobile TV here. Even in Europe it'll be a bit spotty, with T-Mobile Germany as the only carrier to stream games to their 3G customers. Debitel did manage to get their T-DMB network up and running in Germany with their recent launch of the Samsung P900, but we're guessing coverage could be a bit weak this early on. Of course, South Korea has been doing this T-DMB thing for a while, so they shouldn't have many problems. Otherwise, most of the projected mobile TV "surge" will be for downloaded clips, not for live TV, at a projected revenue of $300 million during the month. Phone network capacity has been built in Germany specifically for the games, so as long as you stay near the larger cities and stadiums you should be able to hop online or call up your friends to brag about your current digs.

On the flip side of the mobile coin, Yahoo! Mobile Matchcast is being offered for Java enabled phones, and should provide solid realtime stats and match highlights to just about anybody who cares to download the free app. Yahoo is also offering coverage via free SMS alerts, so you should be able to manage keeping track of the games wherever you have a phone signal, even if all your attempts at live TV fail. There's also an app from Resco called "World Cup Mobile" for Windows Mobile, Palm OS, or Series 60 devices, which keeps track of loads of stats, images and even historical data.

We hope you're looking forward to the rampant patriotism and tasteless fandom of the coming month as much as we are. But before we sign off, we'd just like to chime in a bit of Team USA support as we prepare to settle in for 30 days of watching grown men in short shorts chase a round, slippery sphere around a large field to some unknown aim on just about every kind of device and wireless transmission system known to man. Goooooaalllll!

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