POKER IN THE ROUND

July 20, 2010 - 02:35:55 PM EST  | 

POKER IN THE ROUND
By: Dan Michalski - Pokerati.com

When Danny Egelhoff was a “multimedia producer” for CardPlayer in 2007, he quickly realized, “we needed a way to make watching poker more interesting. Events were edited down to boring bare essentials, and viewers were force-fed what they had to watch.”

Fast-forward to the 2010 WSOP … Egelhoff, 31, and his partner, Rob Gusman, 34, are founders of All 360 Media, an upstart video company launching what some are saying could be the most significant technological advancement in poker since the hole-card cam.

For the past six weeks, these friends of 10+ years have camped out in a makeshift bunker across the hall from the Amazon room. In addition to powerful computers, video equipment and an all-in-one printer/copier/fax, there’s an air mattress, mini-fridge, and 4-cup coffee-maker — all of which have played a role in bringing their vision to fruition. This is Egelhoff’s fifth Series, Gusman’s first. Taped to the wall by one of their monitors is a letter from the Nevada Gaming Control Board, approving All 360 Media to record limited casino action with these strange cameras the GCB had never before seen.

The device looks something like a studio boom-mike outfitted with a Magic 8-ball at its end. It’s actually a special camera (they have two of them) with 11 different lenses all pointing in different directions, packed into a small black orb, and digitally stitched together to provide a seamless view of an entire poker area. The set-up is so new it doesn’t yet have a name. But it uses the same basic technology that Google Earth deployed to map out the planet … upgraded and customized for watching poker.

All 360 began recording non-televised final tables at the start of the Series. ESPN.com began sporadically featuring the interactive, hyper-panoramic footage online a few weeks ago. For the main event, they’ve had one 360-cam affixed to a truss above ESPN’s main feature table, while “table hopping” with the other.

(You can find a permanent archive of these and other recorded tables from the 2010 WSOP on the recently launched website All360Poker.com.)

The cameras act like a robotic eye-in-the-sky, essentially creating a dome of visibility above and around a table, with individual internet viewers able to shift the camera’s direction and zoom at will. Viewers can zero in on the felt, cards, specific players, even fans behind them, to see exactly they want to look at however closely.

Anyone can play All 360’s footage on the web. But PC users can maximize the experience by downloading a special (free) video player, which provides higher resolution images with smoother rendering. This software add-on can even split the screen multiple times so you can watch separate, customizable views simultaneously … as many windows as your RAM can handle! See two players head on, even when they’re facing off from across the table, say a 3-seat vs. a 7-seat, for example, with a third window focused on the flop … all while watching another player shuffle chips in a distinct way when he thinks no one is looking.

* * * * *

The 360-cam first appeared over a poker table in April, during the WPT World Championship at Bellagio. It was a dry run essentially, in preparation for the WSOP, with All 360 allowed to video anything up to the Final 6.

Perhaps by stroke of luck, Phil Hellmuth busted in 7th place, on the TV bubble. After seeing his theatrical performance (in 360 degrees of glory) for the first time, he was more than impressed. “You can watch the dealer, watch the betting action, watch the crowd,” Hellmuth explained, “or zoom in for a closeup up of the player’s face in the middle of a hand!”

Excited about the potential of what he was seeing, Hellmuth asked Egelhoff how he might be able to help. Before long, Hellmuth became an active partner in All 360, where his role, beyond endorsing the product, has included helping open certain doors in the industry, advising on start-up business strategies, and providing back-office support. “This technology is absolutely the future of watching poker. I’m proud to be involved with it,” Hellmuth says.

To bring 360-degrees of tournament coverage from idea to prototype, Egelhoff worked with people from Immersion Media, a key company behind Google Earth, to take what they did with still cameras atop Google’s funny looking mapping cars and customize a video version for poker environs. They first had to figure out how to mount the device upside-down. Then they had to adjust focal lengths by replacing lenses designed to shoot 60 feet out (to infinity) with something better suited for capturing live action just a few feet away. From there they had to rewrite software, and would later have to re-rewrite it to make it compatible with other websites, such as ESPN.com.

Egelhoff and Gusman formed their company in January, but Hellmuth was the one who helped them get their cameras in front of the right people at Harrah’s and ESPN. They’d all finalize a deal for this WSOP in mid-May, two weeks before the first shuffle-up-and-deal. (ESPN gets to air All 360’s footage from WSOP tables first, but All 360 retains the video rights thereafter).

“People assume [Phil] just gave us money, but that’s not it at all,” Egelhoff insists, saying that plenty have approached him at the WSOP with offers of partnership, several of which have proved frivolous, and others they might consider after the Series. Until then, Egelhoff says, “the real value Phil’s given us is full access to his own company’s resources, including his lawyers and CFO. Their support has been invaluable.”

* * * * *

If the cameras at the WPT Championship were version 1.0, the WSOP has seen version 1.5, Egelhoff says. They’ve increased resolution, added a light shield, and have continued to improve back-end software and their video player.

While some TV stations have begun to experiment with the same technology — NBC did an episode of the Today Show where viewers could move around the stage, and a Canadian sports station has tried it at hockey games — poker is one area where the cameras seem to have immediate applications, and thus a market where developers are focusing much of their creative and technical energy.

All 360’s cameras already work for watching players at a table. But so much more can theoretically be added with relative ease — allowing viewers to get more information about whatever it is they’re mousing over, for example, whether that be additional player stats or interactions with a table advertiser.

One of the most obvious and immediate uses in poker is training. While players have studied poker on TV like old-fashioned game films for several years now, the search for tells just hit a new level with this technology.

As cameras inevitably get smaller and processing power gets faster, it’s only a matter of time before new interactive features get added. Hence the growing belief that 360 coverage has a long and promising future in poker … even if few at the moment are exactly sure how.

* * * * *

Egelhoff envisions a future where these cameras are above not just a few chosen tables, but above virtually all of them. “Imagine if you wanted to watch someone you know — get their chip count, see who they’re up against, sweat the action. You could go right to the table of any player! Not just the pros someone else decides you should be watching.”

That day may be a while off. The cameras All 360 is currently using cost more than $100,000 each. But supposedly they are almost ready — a few months from testing — with completely redesigned hardware that requires fewer lenses (6 instead of 11), is smaller and lighter, produces better quality video, and, as things tend to go with high technology, costs less.

Current agreements with individual patent holders give All 360 exclusive rights in casinos and gaming environments. That leaves open a myriad of possibilities beyond the poker table. Security is an obvious future application to explore, and the cameras have already proven a hit for concerts, allowing online audiences to vicariously step onto the stage. Hellmuth brought the All 360-cam to his Main Event “Sky Suite” at Aria, showing its potential use for casino room tours. Recording nightclub activity and pool parties 360-style would likely appeal to thousands, if not millions of Vegas voyeurs.

More immediately though, their next challenge is live-streaming tournament tables. This will require not just further software tweaks, but also additional approval from Nevada gaming regulators. All 360 is currently in active discussions about how this all might work for the 2011 WSOP, while also talking with the WSOP Circuit Tour and a few international poker tours eager to take the technology worldwide.

According to Egelhoff, “This World Series of Poker has been everything we were hoping it would be, and then some.”

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This article by Dan Michalski originally appeared on Pokerati.com

 
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