FutureSPORT: Transforming 3D From ‘Highlight Reel’ to Viable Business

Nearly two years have passed since ESPN first tested the viability of producing sports in 3D at Rentschler Field in Hartford, CT. Since then, massive inroads have been made in the affordability, ease of use, and reliability of 3D production tools and workflows. However, the future of 3D as a viable business model for the sports-production industry is far from certain.

The concluding panel at SVG’s FutureSPORT Summit looked back on the past two years of 3D and the challenges the panelists have faced, and overcome, since that first test on the UConn football field. Amid the consumer cry for glasses-free technology and the industry’s fixation on 4K’s future, three 3D experts discussed why 3D may be an important means of maintaining an audience in an age when HD-quality content is everywhere.

“Like everyone, we started with the assumption that 3D was a standalone, separate project from 2D and began the project by doing fully separate, side-by-side productions,” recalled ESPN 3D Coordinating Producer Phil Orlins of ESPN’s 3D Tech Days. “That was the accepted setup with the way that [3D] was going to work … When I think back to this time two years ago when we were all gathered at the football field in UConn and were testing all the things that we thought we would need for 3D, there was just an endless list of things we didn’t have that were standard to any high-quality 2D production.”

From those earliest days of 3D production, ESPN 3D evolved gradually from the widely accepted side-by-side model to the current single-production 5D model.

“By and large, we’ve built ourselves into a model where we’re not necessarily at no incremental cost,” said Orlins, “[but] we’re at least at a model where there’s no need for incremental production teams [or] incremental mobile units in the mix. We’re able to build ourselves a business model that is something we think we can run with in the future.”

Although software and hardware have improved significantly, the incremental cost of production continues to be at the forefront of any discussion on 3D production as a viable business model.

“The brick wall that we had early on when we signed up with NEP and ESPN for the X Game efforts and subsequent productions was the redundancy factor of 3D,” explained Vince Pace, co-chairman, CAMERON PACE Group (CPG). “There was just a tremendous redundancy factor in the personnel [and] in the equipment, so that translated to cost. As we saw the future [of 3D] for all of us, there was not going to be a future.”

Ted Kenney, director of production for 3ality Technica, sees opportunity in software development. “You’re trying to keep the cost down and try to go out there with less crew,” he said. “For us, it’s been the IntelliSuite [software family], which allows a few things. IntelliCam and IntelliCal operate the cameras and lenses quickly, so there’s more rehearsal time. I can put two new lenses on the camera, and it’ll align itself within five minutes.”

For Pace, the key to lowering costs and building a viable business lies in serving as a 3D integrator. CPG’s Shadow technology integrates the 2D production with the 3D production to create both 2D and 3D deliverables from the same setup.

“Our systems addressed 3D as nothing special,” he said. “We have a saying with some of our hardware now: ‘1-2-3: it doesn’t matter to me.’ One camera, two cameras, three cameras down the pipeline, the cost [of production] is the same, and it competes with the 2D model. For us, it was really a matter of stepping back from [the highlight reel of] what we were accomplishing and start to work with others to figure out how we overcome the Skycam issues, the behind-the-rim issues, [and] the fiber issues on a production.”

For 3D to truly compete with 2D, it needs to have the technology and resolution that viewers expect from an HD 2D production. Although many of the issues first encountered two years ago have been resolved, the panelists agreed that there are still improvements to be made.

“You need smaller [cameras], you need the wide angle, you need [to be able to] actually get up close to somebody,” said Kenney. “You still need a beam-splitter if you want to get a few feet away from your subject with a nice lens and also have a little bit of zoom so they’ve got room to move. Also, from an ENG standpoint … you want to be able to do that quickly [without a backpack and utilities], and right now, it’s not quick enough. You want to get more independent.”

While all three panelists are involved in the content-capture side of 3D production, the subject of glasses-free technology innovation arose; an issue to which no 3D content creator is immune. According to Orlins, ESPN 3D will continue to be as aggressive as possible so it can be ready for any “future evolutionary changes in the business and technology.

“We do our best to create the best content we can create,” he continued. “We’re not oblivious to that discussion by any stretch … If [glasses-free technology] were to come along in a timely fashion, I think we’d be well-positioned to succeed. When 3D is done right, it’s still a special content experience.

Pace offered an interesting take on the issue, opining that the 3D experience is enough to warrant wearing glasses.

“Nobody goes outside and complains about wearing sunglasses. It’s just a natural way of being out there in the sun,” he said. “When you put on those glasses and you have that experience, you’ll recognize everything you’re missing in 2D. It’s an incredible presentation of the real medium that is going on in front of you, and it tells the story better than anything else that’s out there. If glasses is the medium for making that connection to the viewing experience, I think it’s well worth the effort.”

Although the buzz at NAB Show 2012 seemed to signal the abandonment of 3D in favor of 4K, FutureSPORT’s concluding panel suggested that 3D is here to stay, as long as the creation of compelling content continues.

“Even if the resolution argument rages [and] the glasses argument rages, it’s still a unique experience,” Orlins concluded. “It’s the only method out there for adding depth.”

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