3D HD Mavericks game offers industry first: 3D HD MPEG4 distribution via satellite

By Ken Kerschbaumer

When FSN Southwest, the Dallas Mavericks, Pace 3D and the NBA worked together earlier this week for a digital cinema viewing of Tuesday’s game in 3D HD they did more than prove the technology is suitable for a regular season game: they also proved that 3D HD can be delivered via satellite using MPEG4 encoders and decoders. “I still don’t know if MPEG4 is contribution-level technology but it is definitely distribution level,” says Mike Rokosa, NBA VP of engineering.

Fiber would have been the preferable transmission method because it is easier to keep the left and right eye signals in sync. But after fiber circuits were not available between American Airlines Center and the Magnolia Theater in Dallas (where the viewing was held) satellite was selected.

Given the large amount of data required for 3D HD signals, MPEG4 was chosen so that only one transponder would be needed. Harris encoders compressed two 320 Mbps 3D HD ASI streams (for left and right eye) and combined them into one 40 Mbps MPEG4 ASI stream. A single Intelsat C-band transponder delivered the signal from the arena to the theater where Harris MPEG decoders delivered the game to viewers.

While there are still improvements to be made to the MPEG4 system, the proof of concept is important for a future where more than 4,000 3D HD enabled theaters are expected to be rolled out in the next three years. “Timing and the systems were stable and we didn’t have problems with the motion artifacts,” says Rokosa. “It blew me away.”

Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner, says 3D HD is going to be a great revenue source for theaters. “The fans loved it,” he says. “We won’t do it again this year, but we will definitely do this again next year.”

For Mike Anastassiou, FSN Southwest senior executive producer, the event provided a chance to get back into the director’s seat. The game was shot in 3D using four cameras: three located in low slash positions (on either side of the court and at mid-court on a high-hat) and a fourth upstairs.

“Different angles offer a different dynamic in the 3D productions,” says Anastassiou. “We framed things a little differently and always made sure there was a foreground object and, most of the time, a background object.”

3D HD definitely has a sweet spot as being either too close or two far away flattens out the experience as the sense of depth of field becomes too narrow or too wide. “We tried not to cut like a normal telecast,” adds Anastassiou. “We held shots much longer than usual and tried to take the in-arena experience to the viewers in the theater.”

Having only four Sony cameras will typically have production teams complaining that they don’t have enough cameras to do their jobs. But 3D HD production seems to be following the same pattern as HD productions 10 years ago: the images are so stunning that less is sometimes more (the economic reality of more expensive camera systems is also a factor).

“It’s almost like the production strips down to the lowest common denominator,” says Anastassiou. “The images were so dynamic we didn’t need additional cameras. Although a 3D HD Skycam would look unbelievable.”

Anastassiou and the rest of the FSN Southwest team (and especially those in the theater) are believers. “The potential is huge,” says Anastassiou.

Reaching that potential, however, will take some work. 3D HD distribution infrastructures need to become more prevalent. And the cost of production equipment needs to be more suited for the budget of a live sporting event rather than a $200 million James Cameron epic.

“3D HD is still far too expensive to be mainstream,” says Cuban, who also has a chain of movie theaters and two HD cable networks. “But we are going to push to get the costs down.”

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