In Depth

Technology: Adding Depth to Sports

By Debra Kaufman

When two NHL Hockey teams — the Rangers and the Islanders — faced off in Madison Square Garden on March 24, the event made history, and not because of game play.

With the production assistance of 3ality Digital Systems, MSG telecast the event in live 3-D to the 2,000-seat Theater at Madison Square Garden, and Cablevision — which owns Madison Square Garden and the Rangers — delivered a 3-D feed to its 3 million subscribers.

Ready or not, stereoscopic sports are here. “April 2010 was historic because seven of the month’s first 11 days featured top 3-D events reaching consumers both at home and in theaters,” said Sports Video Group editorial director Ken Kerschbaumer. “That is an amazing testament to the interest in 3-D and the power of the consumer electronics industry to play a vital role in making these productions happen.”

Kerschbaumer is referring to CBS Sports’ April 3 and 5 live 3-D broadcasts of the 2010 NCAA Men’s Final Four semifinal and national championship games. Partnered with LG Electronics and Cinedigm, CBS used NEP production trucks and 3-D camera specialist Vince Pace to broadcast the game to 100 U.S. Cinedigm theaters around the country.

The Masters golf tournament was also broadcast in live 3-D about two hours a day, via Comcast’s dedicated 3-D channel and a technology partnership with Sony and IBM; Comcast is also streaming 3-D to computers via the Masters.com website.

And the elephant in the room is Disney’s ESPN, which will launch an all 3-D channel and telecast a minimum of 85 live sporting events in its first year, beginning with the June 11 FIFA World Cup match in South Africa.

“With 3-D you have to convert two streams and make them exactly the same,” said ESPN VP of emerging technology Anthony Bailey, who adds that Snell is working with them on the real-time conversion from Europe’s 50 frames per second to the U.S.’s 60. “We feel pretty confident we can do this.”

ESPN has been working toward 3-D broadcasting for the past three years, recently designating its Orlando, Fla.-based ESPN Innovation Lab at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex as a hub for developing 3-D technology with partner companies. (Currently its only announced partner is Sony.) ESPN producers, directors and freelancers will all receive 3-D training at the lab, including run-throughs of 3-D shows.

“It’s still a big learning process,” said Bailey. “But I believe we’ve gotten to a point where we can produce 3-D day-in an day-out like we do with a 2-D show.”

ESPN 3D’s first production will be the State Farm Home Run Derby on July 12 from Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif. The cablecaster comes to the production with experience gained from a telecast of a Harlem Globetrotters game in February and a 2009 USC vs. Ohio State college football game.

“We learned quickly that you want to stay on a shot longer, and place the cameras low — but not as originally low as we thought,” said Bailey. “We learned the best areas to put the game cameras.”

Graphics are a particularly challenging arena for everyone in 3-D production. “We’ve toyed with reading the convergence of each camera and setting the graphic perfectly to where the cameras converge,” said Bailey. “We’ve experimented with taking graphics out of the 3-D realm and putting them on a big black bar across the bottom. We’ll all be pulling our hair out for a few months to a year or two to get this right.”

Bailey has weekly phone calls with his counterpart at BSkyB in the U.K., which launched Europe’s first 3-D channel on April 3 with a live soccer match distributed to “pubs and clubs.” 3ality Digital sold BSkyB 3-D camera rigs and ancillary gear, as well as provided 3-D training for staffers.

“It’s not about the technology any more,” said 3ality Digital Systems CEO Steve Schklair, who reports that AMV has just outfitted a mobile production truck with 3ality Digital’s 3-D gear. “We’ve done enough live events that work almost flawlessly. The challenge — and the fun — now is the creative. How do you use this technology to improve storytelling?”

The challenge is also the economics as sportscasters contemplate the costs of providing a simultaneous 2-D and 3-D broadcast. “The ATSC will really have to figure out a way to fast-track the standardization if broadcasters are expected to compete with the likes of ESPN,” said Kerschbaumer. “DirecTV will be a great partner, giving over-the-air TV networks an outlet to viewers. But is it in the best interest of over-the-air TV stations if they are not required for 3-D to reach consumers?”