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Robotic cameras capture 'Matrix'-like 'bullet time' action in live sports

Remember the first time you saw "The Matrix," and were mesmerized by that roof scene where time appeared to freeze, and the camera rotated around Neo as bullets inched by? It was cool, but the technology involved was complicated and required a carefully rigged-up set. A scant 15 years later, "bullet time" is finally coming to live, fast-moving events, like basketball games.

The effect is achieved by setting up multiple (and potentially dozens) of cameras along a line. They all capture images simultaneously, recording the subject from so many angles that, when the images are put together, it feels like you're hovering around a subject frozen in time — or moving through it very, very slowly.

The drawback is that the cameras' positions are fixed, able to focus only on one spot; Whatever was to be captured had to be carefully positioned there. The new NHK system (PDF) adds computer-controlled zooms and tripods, letting the cameras point anywhere and the sweet spot be wherever the operator likes. The result is an instant multi-angle view on a moment like a goal, tackle, or KO. Viewers will enjoy it, and perhaps referees will as well.

"We'd like to make it easy to understand what's happening, by providing multi-viewpoint pictures instead of the current slow-motion replay," an NHK spokesman told Diginfo.tv. Not only that, but the multiple cameras could produce 3-D images, or let the user select the angle they prefer.

The custom setup is still bulky and expensive, so don't expect it at any ball games yet, but the appeal is undeniable. What armchair quarterback wouldn't want to see a winning (or contested) play over and over again, not just in slow motion but from all angles?

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.