At CES, SportsNation Becomes ESPN 3D’s First Studio Show

ESPN 3D once again broke new ground in its rapidly evolving production efforts on Wednesday at CES in Las Vegas: SportsNation became the first ESPN studio show to be produced in 3D. Although ESPN 3D has produced hundreds of live events and a handful of College GameDay installments (for basketball), Wednesday’s hour-long episode from the CES show floor marked the 3D network’s first full episode of a studio-based program.

“From a technology perspective, the [studio-show format] obviously makes for a more stable environment than [a live game],” says ESPN Chief Technologist Michael Gay. “The studio environment allows you to take creative liberties that you might not be able to take on a remote. And that is something we are looking forward to.”

SportsNation, hosted by Michelle Beadle and Colin Cowherd, was produced in 3D from the CES show floor.

Although it was technically the first 3D studio show on the network, it was a remote production nonetheless, and ESPN rolled out NEP Supershooter 31 in Las Vegas (in place of ESPN 3D’s regular SS32, which was in New Orleans for the BCS Championship Game).

ESPN deployed two hard 3D rigs and a jib for the production (all CAMERON/PACE Group rigs featuring Sony HDC-P1 cameras) and deployed the 5D production model, which allows a single production team and truck to produce both the 2D and 3D shows, with the 2D telecast taking the left-eye feed.

The 3D-Graphics Issue
The graphics-heavy SportsNation, which emphasizes visual representations of fan polls and social-media interaction, presented a unique challenge for ESPN 3D. Graphics and depth mapping have proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of 3D production. ESPN 3D has struggled to determine the appropriate placement for graphic elements within the depth of field (or Z axis).

This issue often results in viewers’ perceiving elements like score bugs, bottom-line crawls, and lower thirds to be well in front of or behind the action on the field at the zero parallax (the plane where the viewer’s eyes converge at the same point). As a result, these graphics often look awkward to the viewer and can sometimes cause discomfort.

“We’ve been pretty conservative with our graphics for 3D in the past because of the [depth-mapping issues],” Joe Sack, senior director, content media technology, ESPN, said earlier in the week. “This will be a more conservative approach to graphics than what you would normally see on SportsNation, but I think it will be much more aggressive than what you typically see on our [3D live event coverage].”

In an effort to deal with these graphics and depth-mapping issues, SportsNation’s trademark lower-third Widget Bar was specially tailored for maximum stereoscopic-viewing impact. The different graphic elements and content layouts were precisely separated into layers for the 3D presentation of the topic bar.

VCS on Hand in the Desert
The production also marked the first time that VCS, ESPN’s proprietary command and control system normally used on SportsNation, was used for a 3D show. VCS allowed four stereoscopic graphics channels to be controlled by a single graphics operator during the show. Stereo-rendered topic bars, editable frontends, text transitions, and immersive graphics — including the Virtual Desk — were rendered using real-time stereoscopic render engines.

“We use VCS for SportsNation everyday, so, if we were to come out here and try to use standard remote [production] tools, it would make it much more difficult for [the crew] to build the show,” says Sack. “The beauty of this system is that we can use it for 2D or 3D and it works quite nicely. We don’t have to change our production workflow, because the system naturally [lends itself to 3D production].”

Virtual Graphics Take 3D Leap
ESPN also featured its latest virtual-graphics technology in a 3D production for the first time. A virtual-graphics package has been used in several 2D ESPN shows over the past year — including X Games, Winter X Games, the Home Run Derby, and the NFL Draft — but never for a 3D telecast. On SportsNation, these virtual graphics included the Virtual Bars, which display poll results in the pit of the host desk, where talent Colin Cowherd and Michelle Beadle sit.

The system’s graphics-render engine delivers full-resolution left and right streams to the Sony MVX-8000X switcher in the truck. In addition, a real-time motion-tracking system maps the results of the show’s Featured Polls in both virtual and 3D space, creating a seamless composition of graphics over the live-action background.

“The ability to take full advantage of the virtual graphics by having knowledge of where the set is and where you can put virtual graphics is something that we’re certainly excited about and looking forward to doing on other shows,” says Gay.

Already a monumental challenge, the virtual-graphics workflow is compounded further by the presence of a jib, which, unlike a stationary hard camera, forces ESPN 3D to account for camera movements when deploying the virtual graphics.

“When you’re on a jib, you have maybe eight different areas that you have to account for,” says Gay. “We’re getting encoder information from each axis as well as zoom, so we need to make sure our virtual-camera model matches the actual 3D-camera model perfectly. Getting the virtual graphics to render and appear on the desk where they should be is a little challenging in 2D, but even more so in 3D. But that is a challenge that I think we are ready for.”

SportsNation made its 3D debut on Wednesday Jan. 11, with a one-hour episode at 5-6 p.m. ET from the CES show floor. ESPN 3D is exhibiting at CES in the Central Hall, Booth 13632.

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