Third Dimension in the US

Less than a year ago the buzz in the US among broadcasters was how, if ever, the existing HDTV transmission systems could make it possible to deliver 1080p images to viewers. But a rash of recent experiments with live 3D sporting events being delivered to movie theatres across the country has many network and league executives ready to skip 1080p altogether and enter the third dimension.

The first event to be produced and delivered live to theatres in 3D was a broadcast in 720p on December 4 by the National Football League (NFL) network of a regular season game. That broadcast only reached four theatres filled with guests of the NFL. But on January 8 college football fans in more than 80 movie theatres were able to buy tickets and watch the National Championship football game in 3D. Of the 80 theatres 19 sold out and occupancy overall averaged 80%, proving that not only is 3D not a gimmick it can actually create revenue (tickets were priced at about $20 a ticket).

While the two American football game productions relied on whiz-bang 3D camera technology, the production crews were working in regular 2D HD trucks that had some additional gear brought in so the crew could see the 3D production. But replay operators, for example, operated in 2D mode. The traditional monitor wall inside the truck displayed the 2D feed from the left camera while two 3D LCD panels were mounted above the wall so the producer and director could watch the game in 3D.

“The visual and audio experience of the game was phenomenal,” says Glenn Adamo, NFL VP, Media Operations and Broadcasting. “And as the camera technology evolves, this will only get better.”

While networks like Fox Sports and ESPN have experimented with 3D the two football games served as a public experiment, warts and all. “The NFL game gave us an opportunity to learn a lot about prepping for the production,” says Steve Schklair, 3ality Digital founder and CEO. “We learned how to cover a football game, what coverage worked, and how to deal with stereoscopic settings.”

The college championship production was shot by 3ality from eight camera positions

Camera positioning A month after the NFL game the college championship was shot from eight camera positions, and there were more cameras located on the field than in the NFL test where three cameras were located on the upper deck of the stadium. The college production only had one upper deck camera at midfield, allowing for more cameras to be closer to the action where 3D effects are maximised. The NFL telecast had three cameras in the upper level.

Selecting optimal camera positions isn’t the only challenge of going 3D. It is also important to select the right type of 3D camera system for the requirement. 3D camera systems require two cameras and two lenses with one shooting the left eye and the other shooting the right eye. Convergence operators take those two signals and, with the help of 3D monitors and controls, adjust the dimensional depth to create the proper 3D effect by moving the cameras closer and further apart.

There are currently two approaches to mounting cameras for 3D: side-by-side camera mounts and a beam-splitter mount where one camera and lens is mounted at a 90˚ angle above the first camera with both lenses shooting into a system of mirrors. The problem with the side-by-side units is that the lenses physically bump into each other, preventing the two images from completely overlapping — an important capability when an object gets close to the camera. Beam splitters, however, can overlap because the camera bodies and lenses are not located next to each other.

“During the NFL game, we found that side-by-side cameras in the end zone didn’t work because the shot would hurt the eyes,” explains Schklair (whose company handled the production of both games). “The beam splitter systems allow the images to overlap, and that allows us to manage the 3D space so that background images don’t separate out.”

So why 3D? Jerry Steinberg, Fox Sports SVP of field operations, believes 3D can help attract the next generation of viewers who have grown up with video games that often have 3D perspectives. “During the NFL Network 3D broadcast, I was speaking with an 11-year-old and he thought it was the coolest thing he had ever seen,” says Steinberg. “We re-created the stadium experience, and theatregoing will become a social event, almost like tailgating.”

Gaining traction As 3D productions continue to prove their worth, it is believed that remote production truck providers will begin building units pre-wired for 3D, a move that would cut setup time and lower the cost of the 3D productions even further. Schklair estimates the cost premium to have a 3D-capable truck to be about 15% above a 2D-only unit. It’s expected that, eventually, a 3D and 2D production can be integrated and share cameras and graphics, but, for the foreseeable future, 3D productions will be separate.

“This is how we started with HD, with one truck doing 4:3 SD and another doing HD,” says Steinberg. “I don’t see any immediate solution to [an integrated 3D/2D production], but, if 3D continues to gain traction, manufacturers will come up with one-lens and single-camera 3D solutions.”

This month 3D will once again get a try out as the NBA delivers its All-Star Saturday content to more than 80 theatres. Vince Pace, CEO of Pace, will oversee that 3D production and will rely on a less automated production environment than 3ality Digital. Each camera will have its own person controlling the convergence manually, adding more production staff but also allowing more control over the 3D effect.

“I want to make sure the production is polished like a diamond,” says Pace. “It’s a $500,000 production and I want control of the action.”

Jonathan Dern, president of Cinedigm, the company responsible for delivering the 3D content to theatres via satellite, is bullish on the future despite an economic downturn that has some movie theatres scrambling to get financing for the projection equipment.

“As soon as the credit markets open a crack you’ll see many more theatres go 3D,” says Dern, who adds that 2000 theatres will be 3D-capable by the end of 2009. “By mid 2013 we expect 15,000 theatres to be 3D-capable.”

For broadcasters, of course, the interest is the home market. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January a number of TV set makers introduced 3D-capable screens. And in terms of bandwidth a 3D signal can be delivered over the same amount of bandwidth as a 2D signal. The challenge is figuring out the standards.

“Right now we can feed consumer TV sets off Blu-ray discs,” says Schklair. “It’s really a question of when the standards will be settled.”

By Ken Kerschbaumer, TVB Europe