ESPN Shares 3D Lessons at Content Conference

ESPN VP of Emerging Technology Anthony Bailey helped kick off the 2010 Content & Communications World conference at the Javits Convention Center in New York with an update on ESPN’s 3D efforts.

“We’re learning each week how to share 2D and 3D resources, and this is still a science project that we are working on with the industry,” he said during the keynote panel titled 3DTV to the Home: Current Advances, Challenges, and the Future.

In its first year on the air, ESPN’s 3D network will deliver 100 events in 3D to viewers across the country. One of the biggest challenges continues to be that many stadiums and arenas aren’t able to easily accommodate the 3D camera positions.

“We have to look at combining 2D and 3D operations because some of them can barely handle the size of our 2D productions, let alone a whole separate 3D crew,” he added.

In terms of production techniques, camera operators are learning to shoot wider and hold shots longer while also getting closer, and lower, to the action.

“[The lower angles] make for a better fan experience, but you still have to tell the story, so we’ll stay up high to give the viewer a feeling of what is on the field and then sell them down-low camera shots,” he explained. “The story of the game is still more important than a bunch of ‘wow’ moments.”

There are two primary challenges: helping directors who have experience in a 2D world of quick cuts to slow down cuts in 3D and properly handling graphics. Directors, for example, are used to making camera cuts behind on-screen graphics, but they can’t do that as easily in 3D because, if the 3D perspective changes, the graphics will be fighting with the viewer’s eyes.

“ESPN is graphics-heavy, and we are trying to pull back on the graphics on the 3D side,” he added. “We spent a lot of time designing the 3D graphics package, and every week we tweak it.”

The R&D work at ESPN is being complemented by similar efforts from vendors and manufacturers. SES World Skies, for example, has a test platform designed to allow its clients to experiment with a wide range of 3D-delivery variables.

“The test platform is designed for realistic end-to-end testing of 3D,” said Alan Young, SVP/CTO for SES World Skies. “We can simulate practically any distribution infrastructure and its impact on 3D content.”

Participants in the test platform contribute content and also get to share in the relevant research from other contributors. Three satellite transponders are used for the platform, and a downlink facility in Princeton, NJ, plays out the content through various encoders and transcoders. Two identical monitors are then used for comparing material.

“Bad 3D is much worse than bad HD,” Young added. “And it is really easy to produce bad 3D, with things like the left eye out of focus or a different color green in each camera.”

Of course, even if networks like ESPN can more efficiently produce 3D content and SES World Skies can help improve the quality of distribution through its platform, the 3D experience will move out of the experimental phase only if consumers embrace it.

Alec Shapiro, SVP of sales and marketing for Sony Electronics Broadcast and Production Systems, believes that 3D is definitely not a fad in the cinema market: “Just ask any 8-year-old kid if they want to see a 3D movie.”

But TV, he added, is a different story. “We are just at the beginning of learning how to produce good 3D for TV,” he said, noting that, whereas HD had years to develop on the production side, 3D has risen in only 20 months.

And he predicted, “TV without glasses will stimulate consumer interest in 3D.”

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