ESPN 3D Tests 2D-to-3D Conversion for MLS Coverage

In an effort to add more live telecasts to the ESPN 3D slate despite the limited number of 3D production trucks on the road, ESPN is experimenting with a 2D-to-3D–conversion technology for its MLS coverage this season. The technology, whose vendor ESPN declined to specify, allows the network to produce a traditional 2D show onsite and convert the feed to 3D at its Bristol, CT, broadcast center for distribution to the home.

“This is not your standard 5D coverage,” says ESPN 3D Coordinating Producer Matt Sandulli. “We are testing a conversion technology, and we will see if we like it and what we can learn from it. We have done a couple [MLS] games, and it’s looked pretty good thus far. The current setup right now is 100% conversion with no native-3D rigs.”

A Departure From 5D
The experiment — as ESPN IS careful to call it — represents a marked departure from the 5D production model that the three-year-old network has dedicated itself to developing over the past two years. The 5D model uses the same pair of production trucks (usually NEP SS32 and a CAMERON PACE Group Shadow unit), a single combined crew, and a mix of 2D cameras and 3D rigs to produce both the 2D and 3D telecasts (the 2D show is derived from 3D production’s left-eye feed).

Although the 5D model has progressed by leaps and bounds — both economically and technologically — since ESPN first used it for Friday Night Fights boxing in February 2011, live 2D-to-3D conversion nonetheless presents an interesting opportunity for ESPN. The combination of the less-than-expected consumer appetite for 3D content thus far and the flurry of live-signal–conversion products from Blackmagic Design (Teranex), Stergen, and several other manufacturers in recent years have made upconverting 2D a viable option for many 3D-content producers looking to deliver more content on a tighter budget.

“With the hundreds of games we do in a year’s time, being limited to one or two trucks that are capable of [3D production] puts a ceiling on the amount of telecasts that you can do without taking the economics beyond what it should be at this point in the history of the 3D service,” says Bryan Burns, VP, strategic business planning and development, ESPN. “This [2D-to-3D conversion] is a way to find out if we can possibly add more volume and still be economically prudent. That is what this test is all about.”

The Conversion Model
ESPN 3D has laid out eight MLS telecasts this season (every Sunday from March 3 to May 26) and expects to convert the 2D show for all of them. The March 3 telecast marked the first time that live soccer has hit the ESPN 3D programming slate since the network produced the World Football Challenge in July 2011 using two separate production crews and trucks rather than the 5D model.

ESPN customarily uses eight to 10 cameras on its average MLS telecast, sometimes rolling specialty cameras — jib, Steadicam, goal-line cam, in-net POV cameras — for selected telecasts. The network deploys either a MIRA Mobile (western-region matches) or F&F Productions mobile unit (eastern matches) to produce the 2D feed. This 2D show is then sent to Bristol, where it is converted to 3D and distributed to ESPN 3D cable and satellite carriers in the identical fashion that a 5D show would be distributed.

“All the conversion process happens [in Bristol],” says Sandulli. “But there are settings that need to be done for the 3D version of the show. The 3D team [in Bristol] works with the MLS truck and its cameras to sync up our system with the field and the color of the grass, the dimensions, the lines on the field — those kinds of things. There is some interaction that has to happen to have the 3D version work correctly, but, with this technology, any [traditional 2D truck onsite] will do.”

The challenge for sports that, like soccer, take place on large fields has always been to create a compelling 3D image despite having camera positions that are primarily far away from the action. This often creates a flat, 2D-like image, which essentially defeats the purpose of producing the game in 3D. Upconverting 2D only intensifies this effect. However, Burns says the technology ESPN is using goes a long way toward eliminating this issue.

“There are a lot of different conversion companies out there,” he says. “But the one thing about the one we are currently working with is that they seem to have a jump on others in making those long-distance shots look as good as it can look in 3D.”

The End of 5D?
The biggest question, of course, is what this means for the 5D model that ESPN and its technology vendors (most notably CAMERON PACE Group, NEP, and Sony) have worked so hard to develop. Although ESPN’s use of 2D-to-3D conversion is still only in the testing phase, whether it will replace 5D production on all ESPN 3D shows becomes an obvious question.

“All I can say is that it’s a test,” Burns says when asked about the potential replacement of 5D. “We are finding out what’s out there.”

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