College Championship Game Rides the 3-D Wave

With 3-D sports production beginning to catch on in a big way, Sony is sponsoring a live 3-D broadcast of college football’s championship game Jan 8. FOX Sports will broadcast the game to a special event in Las Vegas as well as to 82 specially equipped digital theaters around the country. The special telecast follows a similar broadcast of an NFL game in early December and a NBA All-Star Game in 2007. (Sony also sponsored the later.)

FOX Sports, whose two separate crews will handle the respective productions, will also broadcast the FedEx Bowl Championship Series (BCS) Championship Game in 720p HD. The required 3-D image processing technology is being provided by 3ality Digital Systems, a company in Burbank, CA, with previous 3-D experience.

Mobile production company Game Creek Video (based in Hudson, NH) will provide two of its fleet of HD trucks on-site at Dolphin Stadium in Miami — Yankee Clipper for the main FOX HD telecast and Freedom for the 3-D production. Both trucks feature Sony cameras, a Grass Valley Kalypso HD switcher and EVS HD servers — the same equipment that is now used for HD sports productions. They’ll work with 3ality Digital and its specially designed dual-camera rigs and separate image processing systems. The 3-D signals coming from eight of the dual Sony HDC-1500 camera rigs — located on the field and in limited locations throughout the stadium — will be converted to traditional 2-D inside the truck, transmitted as 2-D to save bandwidth, then decoded at the receive end for the full 3-D experience.

The point, according to Steve Schklair, CEO of 3ality Digital Systems, is to show that 3-D production can be accomplished with existing production trucks and established transmission methods. “In terms of production techniques, we understand the need to not reinvent the wheel,” Schklair said. “We’re out to show that 3-D does not require that much extra bandwidth to transmit, and that it can be practically produced on the field and at virtually any live venue. This [3-D production of live events] is now in the proof-of-concept stage, but we’re getting better with each telecast we do. We learned a lot of lessons at the first NFL broadcast, and we’ll use that experience for the BCS Championship game.”

The biggest game in college football will be transmitted from Dolphin Stadium to a special viewing party at the Paris Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, using Sony’s SXRD 4K projection technology. The Theatre des Arts inside the Paris Hotel has been outfitted with filtering technology from a company called RealD, which specializes in 3-D projection. The theater was specifically built and customized for the SXRD 4K projection system. Invited guests (wearing polarized glasses) will view the game live in 3-D during the annual Consumer Electronics Show.

The timing is not a coincidence because this year’s CES show will host several new HDTV sets that are capable of displaying 3-D programming, including those from JVC, Samsung and Sony. (Sony will introduce four prototype models that should hit the market in 2010.)

“I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the number of compatible technologies on the floor at CES this year,” said Alec Shapiro, senior VP of Sony Electronics’ Broadcast and Production Systems, adding that to date, every 3-D telecast has been captured with Sony HD cameras. “Sony sees opportunity to help the various sports leagues expand their fan base and bring this exciting new technology to the market.”

Shapiro said the event at the Paris Hotel provides a perfect showcase for the company’s 4K technology, which was designed to show 2-D or 3-D content in the highest resolution available — for motion picture releases, live events or other content. The Sony projectors’ 4K resolution is derived from a matrix of more than 4000 horizontal pixels, delivering more than four times the resolution of HDTVs used in home theater systems.

Like the NFL game before it, the college football telecast will use 3ality Digital’s image-capture technology; however, this time it will be transmitted live via Cinedigm’s CineLive satellite distribution network to Las Vegas as well as to the nationwide theaters. In a trial to test the value of such broadcasts, these theaters will charge fans about $20 to view the game. Without a valid business model, the technology will be prohibitive to produce most sports events.

“We’ve got to figure out if we can do this economically and practically, and I think we can,” said Jerry Steinberg, senior VP of field operations and engineering for FOX Sports. “I feel like we’re in the early days of the HD transition, which took almost 10 years to get to where we are today. It’s clear that 3-D has moved from a science project to a working technology that has enormous potential for all sports and entertainment on television.”

It’s the second such event involving Sony and the third public showing in the past year. Other sports networks, such as ESPN, have been quietly testing different workflows that will make the technology practical.

For the broadcast, 3ality Digital will employ Sony HD cameras specially modified for stereoscopic production and transmission of the game. According to the company, the 3ality Digital technology allows a camera operator to shoot in a style similar to traditional 2-D with pan-tilt-zoom control and provides continuously self-correcting software to deliver high-quality stereoscopic imaging.

To date, there are about 1500 3-D capable theaters in the United States (equipped by RealD and Dolby Labs), and 16 3-D theatrical productions will be screened in 2009.

By Michael Grotticelli, BroadcastEngineering