ESPN Pegs ESPN Innovation Lab as 3D-Technology Hub

ESPN’s highly anticipated foray into 3D sports programming has a brand-new home. The network has officially dubbed its ESPN Innovation Lab at the newly rebranded ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Disney World as its hub for 3D-technology development.

“[The Innovation Lab] will serve as a Petri dish for this technology to develop,” says Chuck Pagano, EVP of technology at ESPN. “I still think that 3D is a science experiment. It’s a lot of trial and error: what works in this space as opposed the 2D space. Our first year is all about trying to do the best job that we can while also learning along the way.”

Much of the work done at the Innovation Lab was on display for last week’s 3D production of a Harlem Globetrotters game from the complex’s Milk House indoor facility. The game served as a testing ground for the technology that will power the ESPN 3D network, which will launch on June 11 with live telecasts from the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. However, the World Cup content will be produced by Host Broadcast Services; therefore, the first major test will come in July when ESPN’s Summer X Games 16.

“When we take over for the X Games, it’s going to be a lot like what we saw [in the Globetrotters broadcast],” says Anthony Bailey, VP of emerging technology at ESPN. “We’ll control where the cameras go, the graphics , the replays — everything that you’re used to seeing on ESPN. You’ll notice the difference. On the other hand, [for the World Cup,] we’re just taking the world feed, so we’re relying 100% on what they send us. What we’re still trying to work out is, what does that mean?”

ESPN will invite several technology companies to use the Lab for emerging enhancements focused on 3D TV and 3D production. These companies will be able to conduct trial runs for new technologies during the 300-plus youth sporting events that will take place over the next year at Wide World of Sports as well as during events like the Globetrotters game, Atlanta Braves spring training, and MLS soccer games. These events will provide a low-risk setting for ESPN and its technology partners to test out up-and-coming technologies.

Sony, the official sponsor of ESPN 3D and principle integrator of the Wide World of Sports’ new production center, will obviously play a key role in evolution of the Innovation Lab and its 3D advancements.

“We are certainly working on projects with ESPN involving 3D technology and [the Innovation Lab] will go a long way in facilitating that,” says John Garmendi, national account manager, Sony Broadcast & Production Systems Division. “In every part of the content-production chain, [Sony] has solutions that are capable of doing 3D today, and then we will have further matured solutions in the relatively near future. As we move on into the future [with ESPN], we’re going to have what you could call ‘glue products’ that help enhance the 3D-production experience.”

The Lab, which opened last October, has already generated two production elements that have been used during ESPN broadcasts: the Ball Track and ESPN Snap Zoom. Ball Track, which debuted during the 2009 Home Run Derby telecast, uses Doppler radar to track home-run distance. Snap Zoom, which launched in September on Monday Night Football, is a freeze-frame effect that zooms in on specific plays.

However, while the Lab will address all forms of innovation, 3D stands at the forefront. After all, ESPN plans to produce a minimum of 85 live sporting events in 3D over the next year, so the network has plenty at stake. Events include up to 25 World Cup matches, X Games coverage, NBA games, college basketball, and college football — including the 2011 BCS National Championship game in January. It is a tall order, to say the least, but Pagano is confident that ESPN is on the right track.

“At the end of the day, [3D] is the right direction.” he says. “We’re closing the gap on what we don’t know versus what we know about 3D, but there are still a lot of question marks out there, and everyone is trying to figure out what they need to know.”

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