3D-Sports Connection Takes Center Stage

By Carrie Bowden

Sports production in 3D was a major focus at New Bay Media’s 3DTV 2010 Conference, held in New York City on May 25. And for good reason: 3D sports has dominated the live-3D-production landscape, and, when it comes to finding experts in 3D, it is those in the sports community who have the most practical experience. A panel session moderated by TV Technology Editor Tom Butts gave leading sports producers — SVG members and sponsors — a chance to shine.

“Sports is big,” said Mike Vitelli, president of Best Buy Americas. “It’s a massive industry in the U.S. and a massive industry that consumers love.”

Major sports events, like the NBA Conference Finals, would be a natural for 3D, he added. “I would watch the entire three-hour game [if it was in 3D].”

The question facing the industry is how many major events like the NBA Conference Finals will be produced and distributed in 3D. DirecTV has stepped up to produce the MLB All-Star Game in 3D on July 13. The World Cup 3D broadcasts, produced by Host Broadcast Services, will be distributed by ESPN beginning June 1. And ESPN has committed to nearly 100 events.

Myriad Possibilities in Sports
But, beyond those events, the 3D sports calendar is heavy on possibilities and light on promises. Ken Aagaard, EVP of production and operations for CBS Sports, said that CBS is currently evaluating future 3D productions but no decisions have been made. And Steve Hellmuth, EVP of operations and technology for NBA Entertainment, reported that the NBA, which has been a leader in 3D productions, is putting together a 3D movie that can tour the world, giving fans around the globe a chance to see what it feels like to sit in the first row.

“This is a big opportunity for the industry,” Hellmuth observed. “The low camera angles allow fans to appreciate the speed and split-second decisions that have to be made on the field of play in a way they can’t in 2D. And, at the NBA, we’re blessed to have camera positions reserved.”

Proper camera positions are only half the battle. There is also a need for training since 3D productions, to date, have been limited. Hellmuth said that, the night before 3D productions, the crew will sit down and watch the previous event in 3D on both large projection screens and smaller monitors. “It schools the entire team about the task ahead.”

Learning Key Concepts
For the CBS Sports coverage of the NCAA Men’s Final Four in 3D, camera operators were brought in early for training, Aagaard said.  “In a couple of hours, they caught on quickly, but the truth is, to make 3D work the way we want it to will take time. The neat thing is that, in the production truck, 3D is transparent to the technical director, audio people, and even on the EVS playback side.”

3ality Digital CEO Steve Schklair noted that training is not as complex as it sounds. With clients BSkyB and Telegenic, the production company that handles the 3D events for BSkyB, he said, “it took less than a week to train everybody. Then, we just stand around and supervise, and everyone was doing beautiful work.”

One of the key concepts that needs to be learned, he added, is matching the depth of the object of interest from one camera cut to the next. When a person’s eyes are focused on an object — for instance, a player — having to adjust to new depths quickly can cause headaches and eye fatigue.

“The eyes don’t transition; they just snap to the next spot,” said Schklair. “In a movie, you can make depth and object placement consistent in postproduction, but it is the biggest issue in live events.”

Burgeoning Demand
Another big issue? Having enough production trucks on the road to keep up with demand. NEP Broadcasting CTO George Hoover said that NEP will roll out two 3D trucks next month and is seriously considering a third.

Alec Shapiro, SVP, Broadcast and Professional Sales Division, Sony Electronics, noted that, among the 3D trucks available is an All Mobile video unit that will hit the road soon.

While the production teams attempt to catch up with the distribution side of the business, operators like DirecTV and Comcast Cable will be waiting with open channels.

“From a business standpoint, 3D is about customer retention and acquisition,” said Steven Roberts, SVP of new media and business development for DirecTV. “We will have the best and most content to offer, and it’s an acquisition play for the 1 million or 2 million people expected to buy 3D sets.”

Mark Hess, SVP, advanced business and technology development, for Comcast Cable, believes that video on demand will be the difference-maker for cable as it fights to acquire and retain customers making the leap to 3D.

“We can manage the bandwidth better, and our VOD servers are huge,” he added.

One challenge for both cable and satellite, however, is that many of the current 3D blockbusters are already locked into release windows with such networks as HBO and Starz. That means that they will be unavailable to air on new 3D channels and services.

Challenges aside, bullish optimism was the mood of the day at the conference.

“The American public has had a 60-year love affair with moving pictures in a box,” said Hess. “And, every time we’ve made them better, there was adoption. Some of it is technical, some of it is behavioral, but it’s such a great viewing experience, it will be adopted.”

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