SBJ/20091108/Technology in Sports

Though still not ready for home use, new dimension in TV viewing is coming into focus

When ESPN hosted 3D showings of Ohio State’s college football clash against USC in four cities in September, it considered the endeavor to be more of a test than a showcase.

Some aspects of the telecast, such as low-angle shots of players cutting and colliding, worked well. Others, such as the general delivery of the basic views that help fans follow a game, or in some cases a single play, failed badly at key moments.

It was a learning experience.

While 3D has excited most who have seen it — Fox Sports Chairman David Hill has described HD as “merely a steppingstone” toward 3D — it remains early in the curve of general adoption: common for cinematic releases, but not yet available for use at home.

Much of the nation only recently made the switch to HD, so another cycle of purchasing likely is a few years away. And while 3D has advanced from the days of 1950s sci-fi, viewers still must wear special glasses. A 3D broadcast production requires two HD cameras — one for the left eye, one for the right eye — on rigs that currently carry only one camera, increasing front-end costs dramatically.

The Mavericks held a theater viewing
in 2008 and Cavs fans (bottom) went to
The Q during the 2007 NBA Finals.

Still, many in TV agree that the 3D experience is coming to the home and that sports will be one of the drivers, as it has been for HD.

“We’re still trying to progress along with what it’s going to take to do it and how much changes,” said Anthony Bailey, vice president of emerging technology at ESPN. “Can we do 2D and 3D out of the same truck with the same cameras? We don’t know. We’re going to go slow on this and make sure we have our ducks in a row before we dive into the pool.”

So far, there have been at least seven live, 3D sports broadcasts.

The NBA was the first to try 3D and it has been the busiest. It started with a by-invitation screening of the NBA All-Star Game at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas in 2007. Later that season, the Cleveland Cavaliers showed a 3D broadcast of the second game of the NBA Finals to about 14,000 fans at Quicken Loans Arena. Last year, the All-Star Saturday Night festivities aired in 3D in 80 movie theaters across the country. The Dallas Mavericks also tested a game in 3D at a movie theater.

The NFL made its entry into 3D in December with a test broadcast of a San Diego-Oakland game for guests in theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

Two college football games have aired in 3D. Fox fed a 3D broadcast of last year’s BCS national championship game to 80 theaters across the country. ESPN tested the 3D waters in September, showing the Buckeyes and Trojans to invited guests at four locations.

The greatest takeaway so far has been that a 3D telecast requires a  re-examination of the way a game is presented on TV. The most striking use of HD is to deliver pictures from field level, where viewers best appreciate the movement of the players and the game. Showing a game exclusively from those angles, though, can make it difficult to follow.

For all the cameras that a network may use at an event, the basic view of the game generally comes from a single spot.

“These angles by which we watch games, whether center-field or midfield or midcourt, those truly are the best ways to watch a game,” said Fred Gaudelli, producer of “Sunday Night Football” on NBC. “And 3D really doesn’t impact those much. You’d have to complement your broadcast with some of these lower angles. So that main view wouldn’t really change, but the lower angles would take on a whole new life.”

Bailey said ESPN doesn’t have plans for a second 3D telecast yet because it still is digesting the findings from its debut effort. One thing it will change on its next try, though, will be to think more about where it positions cameras. “We need to get in there and see what [an angle] looks like,” Bailey said.

“Camera positions have been the same for years, and you don’t question them. With 3D, you’re really redefining the location. … Everything is about your camera location, and not necessarily being low with everything.”

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