3D to Add Sparkle

“Is HD good enough?” That was a question posed by keynote Peter Angell, director of production and programming at Host Broadcasting Services at TVBEurope’s recent Sports Broadcast Europe conference. “Why else is there so little broadcast of HD at the moment? Is the difference not enough over SD for typical viewers?

While calling for broadcasters to put out more high definition channels, he also led into one of the conference’s big themes: will 3D be the next major advance in sport television?

There is certainly a growing tide of interest in 3D. In the USA the NBA recently announced its intention to ‘broadcast’ live its All-Star Events next month, to 160 screens in 80 digital cinemas across 35 states. That comes just two years after the first demonstration 3D NBA event, which carried the signal just a couple of kilometres from the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas to the Mandalay Bay Hotel. Now thousands of fans will be able to watch the game, for a reported $20 a ticket.

Angell, who was director of production at the last two FIFA World Cups, sees 3D as a major driver in the future, but has some misgivings. He reported on a recent test production in the States, saying “people who saw it were less than impressed, but that is not unexpected — it is easy to get it wrong. 3D can look good, but it can also make you throw up. I have to take a break after 20 minutes,” he admitted. “We need to do a lot of work on the physiology to see if it is possible to watch a 90 minute football match.”

The conference kept returning to the topic, and a number of speakers raised the technical problems of delivering good 3D at the sort of budget a sports broadcaster can afford. “Pace and 3ality are making huge and complex rigs for movies which are inappropriate for sport,” Angell said. “Let’s use standard broadcast equipment and make it do 3D.”

Duncan Humphreys of Can Communications, which worked on the 2008 trial broadcast of a Six Nations rugby match, claimed that “some leading camera manufacturers are looking to make 3D cameras.” For now, there are practical issues in using standard cameras: mounting two side-by-side makes it difficult to get the separation correct, while using a mirror rig loses a stop of light which can cause problems with outdoor sports in winter.

Humphreys also explained that there are difficulties in setting a distance between the left and right optical paths in sport. His experience is that, to get any perceptible 3D effect from a camera high above the centre line at a rugby stadium, the spacing needs to be pushed further apart than the traditional inter-ocular distance. The result of this, though, is that the viewer has, in effect, a giant head, and the action looks miniaturised. Other challenges are more mundane. The two eyes need to be kept in perfect synchronisation, which is never easy over satellite contribution links.

Zooming and fast camera moves create a very unpleasant motion blur. You have to keep a wide, static shot and let the 3D HD tell the story. Rain is a nightmare, particularly when it is falling on the lens, and if anyone jumps up in front of the camera — as they often do at a sports event — the effect on the 3D audience is terrifying.

Consumer electronics manufacturers are keen to see 3D become a broadcasting reality, as it means they can sell a new generation of large flat screens.

Orange in France and Sky in the UK have already made trial broadcasts. It seems there is a long way to go before the technical and production challenges are solved, and even the tempting target of the 2012 Olympics may be too soon.

By Dick Hobbs, TVB Europe