The End of ESPN 3D, the Future of the 3D Format

It was June 2010 and the ESPN campus was buzzing. Not only was the network immersed in the kickoff of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but company executives as well as a number of reporters were on hand for the start of something new: ESPN 3D. A new era in televised sport had begun.

But, at the end of this year, that era — let’s call it the first 3D-sports era in the U.S. — will come to an end. There will be no 3D World Cup in 2014, at least not in the U.S. (FIFA has not decided whether it will offer a 3D feed, but ESPN’s dropping out of the “we are interested” column definitely does not help another 3D World Cup become a reality). And a wealth of other sports — Wimbledon, The Masters, college football’s national championship, the X Games — will also not be available in 3D.


When ESPN launched the 3D service, it seemed as if it would not be alone in its commitment to the cause. Sony was on board as a partner, sponsoring the channel. And Panasonic and DIRECTV had a similar arrangement for a channel, with the former “doubling down” and sponsoring the US Open tennis  tournament in 3D as well. Fox Sports delivered a 3D broadcast of the National Football Championship Game from Miami. Fox also delivered the MLB All-Star Game in 3D, and the YES Network did the same for a Yankees-Mariners baseball game. CBS broadcast the NCAA Final Four men’s tournament to theaters around the country in 3D. The Masters also received the 3D treatment. Even the NFL dabbled in a 3D theater broadcast. And, of course, all those events were simply catching up to the NBA, which had been working in 3D since 2007. And then there were the London 2012 Olympics and countless other sports events produced in 3D around the globe.

But, with ESPN’s announcement that its 3D channel will end broadcasts at the end of this year, the 3D format seems officially headed into hibernation mode, at least among U.S. broadcasters. The 3D format will, however, still have a presence in video-on-demand services, Blu-ray, and theaters.

Producing content in 3D was never easy, especially in 2010-11. The 3D camera rigs and the quality-control equipment were still in their infancy.

Since those early days, the efforts of ESPN, BskyB, and CBS with technology partners CAMERON PACE Group (CPG) and 3ality Technica have continually improved the 3D production process.  And the uncompressed 3D images in the production truck? They were always stunning, comfortable, and compelling, regardless of the event. Even the very first event, the 2010 World Cup, saw improvement from the first match to the last. There was little doubt that positive developments related to 3D production tools were directly correlated to the number of events being produced in 3D.

Of course, many involved in live sports production are probably sleeping a bit easier: 3D broadcasts are difficult, time-consuming, and often simply layered on top of HD duties. And then there is 4K, the new darling of the consumer-electronics industry. The 4K-marketing dollars will soon begin flowing to make 4K sports productions a reality, much the way 3D-marketing dollars flowed to sports productions (and ESPN) three years ago.

In the coming days, there will no doubt be articles about ESPN’s decision and whether it means the death of 3D. There will be discussions about why 3D failed. Topping the list of reasons? The glasses.

The glasses problem turned out to be about much more than their use in the living room. The need for glasses greatly inhibited the ability of consumer-electronics showrooms to properly demonstrate 3D to the public.

First, the need for active glasses led most 3D displays to require consumers to look through a pair of 3D glasses mounted atop an adjustable pole so that it could be raised and lowered to suit the viewer’s height. Of course, many of those poles often had no glasses, which had been stolen. And, even if there was a pair of glasses, one could not help thinking that sticking your nose into a pair of glasses sitting in a showroom was about as sanitary as licking the buttons on an elevator. Trying out consumer electronics should never make you wonder whether you’ve recently had a tetanus shot.

So consumers never had a chance to really experience the 3D-viewing experience.

A bigger problem faced consumers even if they did decide to partake of 3D broadcasts: lousy resolution. The 3D channels are sent over the same bandwidth as an HD channel. Because the left- and right-eye signals (or top and bottom) share the same bandwidth, resolution is effectively cut in half, making consumers choose between an HD 2D experience or an SD 3D one. And that makes the 3D experience sometimes seem as much a step back as a step forward.

Lack of Marketing Cohesion
As if the retail 3D experience were not bad enough to discourage consumers from buying into 3D, there was also marketing confusion and a lack of cohesion. First, unlike HD, 3D never had a chance to become a marketing tool for satellite, cable, and telco operators to use against each other.

When DIRECTV began delivering dozens of HD channels, it turned up the competitive pressure on cable operators to respond in kind. And both offered broadcast and cable networks a reason to launch HD services. When DIRECTV launched its 3D services, cable operators simply launched 3D VOD services and called it a day. As a result, 3D never became a buzz.

Another problem was having companies like Sony and Panasonic sponsor channels. True, it gave ESPN 3D the financial gas to be a reality. Ditto for DIRECTV’s 3D channel. But it led to issues that, ultimately, stymied the popularity of 3D, siphoning away money that could have ensured that the nation’s biggest sports events were delivered in 3D, regardless of which network carried the event.

Will 3D Go Away?
The irony of the current situation is that a good portion of the HD sets sold in the past three years are 3D-capable: the feature has become standard in many mid- and upper-level sets. And that, in the end, is all the consumer-electronics industry was after: not to create a new format but simply to give consumers another reason to buy a new set, regardless of whether the feature was ever activated. So today millions of 3D-capable sets are sitting in living rooms across America, waiting for a reason to be switched into 3D mode.

So what will it take to get consumers to flip that 3D switch? Developments related to glasses-free displays continue to move forward, and the resolution of 4K and 8K sets can solve many of the resolution drawbacks that make current glasses-free displays less than compelling for day-in/day-out viewing. If that technology can get to the point where consumers can walk into a TV showroom and see an HD 2D set and a glasses-free 4K 3D set showing the same images side by side, it is pretty clear which they would prefer.

There are also developments related to 3D tablets. Their form factor is ideal for glasses-free 3D viewing, and some Chinese manufacturers have developed compelling products.

And what about Apple? Two years ago, the company was riding high, and offering a 3D iPad seemed an unnecessary luxury (and risk) for the market’s dominant product line. But Apple is in need of a new tablet trick. A glasses-free 3D iPad that could display 3D iTunes movies would be a hit, particularly among children.

ESPN’s decision to end its 3D channel is no doubt a major blow to the format. But 3D is not going away. CPG is deeply involved with the Chinese market, whose national broadcaster has committed to 3D. Those efforts will help spur on development of next-generation 3D production tools.

The industry has been here before. In 1999, Panasonic paid for an HD truck to support Monday Night Football broadcasts on ABC. After one season, the truck was pulled off the road when Panasonic decided not to support the efforts in 2000.

“We’re having ongoing discussions with ABC, but, to be honest, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” then-Panasonic Broadcast President Warren Algyer said at the time. “There were benefits from the broadcasts that we expected that didn’t accrue to us.”

Algyer’s words seem as applicable today to the 3D movement as they were to HD in 2000. Of course, a government mandate that required broadcasters to move to next-generation digital broadcasts eventually made HD a reality. The question for the entire industry is whether market demand alone can make next-generation formats like 3D and even Ultra HD long-term realities.

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