Remember watching the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games when Australian Ian Thorpe broke the world record in the 400-meter freestyle event? Now remember the flags that were submerged in each swim lane--the ones that cued viewers, worldwide, as to each swimmer's nationality? Did you wonder how all those flags got down there?
Think technology, Emmy-Award winning technology from Orad Hi-Tec Systems, the company whose technology everyone the world over has seen on TV--but a company very few really know.
"In the Western world, you can randomly pick the country and the country's top five broadcasters, and three of those five are using some combination of Orad's products," says Zack Keinan, CEO of OradNet, a spin-off company of Orad.
Why such demand? Keinan contends that Orad's real-time video processing and pattern recognition algorithms, combined with its hardware engines, sensor technologies and innovative application generators are giving both traditional and Internet broadcasters a unique set of tools to work with. "These are new tools that make TV, sports and advertising campaigns far more exciting and compelling for viewers," says Keinan.
One-stop shop for broadcast, sports, sponsorship and Internet markets
Orad got its start in Israel in 1993, says Keinan, when founders Avi Sharir, currently CEO of Orad, and Dr. Miky Tamir, now Orad's Executive Vice President, teamed up to launch the company.
"The two founders formed Orad on a set of core technologies, based on the real-time tracking of objects on video, which included the ability to render the combination of graphics and video from information coming from this tracking process," says Keinan. Since then, Orad's focus has evolved into one where Orad develops products for the TV broadcasting, Internet, production studio and sports events markets--using emerging electro-optical, video and real-time image processing technologies.
"Today, we provide a one-stop technology shop for all our customers, where Orad has become the standard for our virtual sets, sports commentary, virtual advertising and sports production products," says Keinan, "And we have customers worldwide that include the biggest names in broadcasting--such as WDR in Germany, RAI in Italy, ABC and the Discovery Channel in the US, CBC Canada, China's CCTV and TV Globo--to name a few."
Orad applications create unique content while saving time, costs
So what, exactly, does Orad do? "Orad's key applications include virtual studios, virtual advertising and video enhancements for sports broadcasters," says Keinan. Broadcasters use these applications to help them create additional, unique content more easily and efficiently, while saving costs--since the content is produced on the computer versus with a traditional cast and studio.
Take Orad's family of Virtual Sets, which broadcasters are using for multiple programs such as news, weather, entertainment, talk shows and children's programs. Broadcasters can seamlessly integrate live presenters and actors into a Virtual Set from Orad, using 3-D scenery and computer-generated environments. "The on-air result is so realistic viewers can't tell that everything is being produced from a virtual set," says Keinan.
Orad's virtual advertising system, IMadGINE, is another breakthrough product, contends Keinan. "With IMadGINE, broadcasters or producers can electronically replace the peripheral boards in their stadium or seamlessly insert synthesized messages right onto the playing field. This allows producers to target their messages to specific audiences--and create a more compelling experience by placing 2-D and 3-D animated objects, and even video clips, into the playing area."
In addition, Orad's sports commentary and analysis tools are changing the way today's sports commentators and producers work, claims Keinan. In this case, Orad's CyberSport can add tied-to-the field commentary graphics to live and instant replay video, where broadcasters insert graphic information over their sports broadcasts. CyberSport is also the technology that produced those country flags in the Olympic Game pool. "Another Orad sports analysis tool lets broadcasters add a graphic overlay--usually a specific object, such as a player, or a moving ball--to the video itself. This gives viewers additional insight into what the ball or player is doing," says Keinan.
Intel Capital Invests in Orad
In 1999, Orad met Intel Capital through another group at Intel, says Keinan. "We were at NAB in Las Vegas, the biggest tradeshow in broadcasting, when some members from the Intel Architecture Labs (IAL) came by our booth. We spent a while explaining what Orad was up to, and specifically our plans towards the Web --and they became interested in us, and then introduced us to Intel Capital.
Keinan says Intel Capital was also very responsive to Orad, but Orad had a tight deadline for any investment activities. "Our IPO was coming up, so we had to work quickly. We found the Intel Capital team to be flexible and cooperative given this timeline.
After meeting with Orad, the Intel Capital team saw the same opportunities that had initially attracted IAL -- that the company was creating rich media and interactive technologies targeted at an emerging class of immersive entertainment content and applications. Orad's technology was also aimed at broadcasting, sports and sponsorship markets as well as the Internet market. After a due diligence investigation, Intel Capital invested in Orad in 1999 to encourage the growth of the Internet through making new types of Web-based applications available such as what Orad was creating.
Orad spins off OradNet to build immersive sports webcasting technologies
Keinan says that once Intel Capital made the initial investment, Orad's primary relationship has been with IAL-- a group within Intel that serves as an "Idea Factory" to create and develop new ways to make the Internet easier to use--and more entertaining.
"At the time of the Intel investment, we (Intel and Orad) defined that we wanted to build certain capabilities together using sports as the content and the Internet as the distribution channel," says Keinan. However, a few months into the investment relationship, Keinan says Orad saw it would be best if Orad spun off a new company to develop and market its immersive sports webcasting technologies. Thus, in August 2000, Orad spun off OradNet, Inc as a wholly owned subsidiary of Orad, says Keinan. OradNet would develop applications that would enable sports fans worldwide to watch and play live or delayed sports events on their computers.
According to Keinan, the relationship between Orad and IAL was a big catalyst to Orad's decision to spin off OradNet. "We realized that while some technologies would not be completely dissimilar to what Orad is developing, that the Internet market's very different, therefore our entire development activity and environment would have to be different and require a new approach," says Keinan.
OradNet and IAL enter into joint Sports Internet development agreement
Working with IAL has led to a number of new opportunities, says Keinan, especially since the key motivation for Intel's initial investment was to take Orad's core technology and develop follow on technologies for the Internet--as opposed to broadcast.
"For this reason, in May 2000 OradNet entered into an agreement to jointly develop our immersive sports webcasting technologies with IAL. Together, we decided to build a sports immersion system that would harness Orad's players' and balls' automatic tracking methods and IAL's newly developed web 3-D environment," says Keinan. In addition, OradNet entered its first project within the framework of Orad's cooperation agreement with Intel. In this project Orad and IAL committed to jointly develop TOPlay Soccer, which is a set of bandwidth friendly, high-performance, scalable 3-D graphics immersive sports webcasting tools for soccer.
The resulting (Orad and Intel) technology from this project would be aimed at generating live or delayed compelling 3-D graphical simulations of sports highlights. "For instance, soccer fans seeking a more personal view of a match would be able to now enjoy a graphical visualization of a match by choosing their viewpoint--such as choosing to watch the match through the eyes of their favorite player," says Keinan. Ultimately, the goal is to also use this technology with real-time live sports coverage of entire events.
A few months later, in November 2000, Keinan says the fruits of OradNet's relationship with IAL spawned yet another opportunity--one where TOPlay Soccer would be using the future version of the Macromedia Shockwave Player--enhanced with Intel internet 3-D Graphics technology.
"This means TOPlay will be able to enable sports sites to webcast full motion 3-D graphic interactive sports entertainment, based on live and delayed sports events," says Keinan, who adds that OradNet plans to develop product versions of TOPlay for other sports, such as football, baseball, cricket and other games.
A satisfying working relationship
Keinan says that the most important part of OradNet's experience with Intel, beyond the equity investment, is the ongoing relationship OradNet has with the IAL organization. "Together, we've defined the (sports immersion) system we would be building--on the drawing board. From there, we broke the system down into modules, where each of us took responsibility to develop certain parts of the modules. So together, with IAL, we are building one system," explains Keinan.
Keinan says the relationship with IAL has offered OradNet access to some unique, proprietary technologies that Intel is developing both independently and with Macromedia. "We've been able to be the first adopters of these technologies--and have also collaborated to fine-tune adjustments of those technologies to OradNet's specific needs. This kind of opportunity is not something that happens everyday," says Keinan.
In addition, Keinan says that OradNet is getting access to "a powerhouse of very strong brand recognition and market understanding, which is helping us on our market strategy, visibility and the development of our business. As well, we have access to some of Intel's many contacts. All of these things would be very difficult to do on our own."
Working with OradNet has also benefited Intel, says Keinan. "With us they have a good resource to explore this emerging area of sports webcasting which they wouldn't have done in the same way by themselves. We've also introduced Intel to an attractive and dynamic market--both in terms of content and technologies that are being developed--and to some of our customers, who have also opened up new opportunities to them. All this gives Intel an opportunity to explore the emerging sports immersion marketplace, with us and without us."