ESPN’s 3-D Channel Takes Baby Steps

ESPN’s dedicated 3-D channel went live on the air last week, starting with coverage of 25 World Cup matches from South Africa, and, if you like 3-D TV, it went off well, technically. There were a few glitches, and graphics were sorely lacking, but it’s clear that these early days of 3-D TV are proving to be a lot less painful than the early days of HD production.

Taking a live 3-D feed from South Africa, the new channel is based at the sports network’s main HD production facility in Bristol, CT, and is managed by a “temporary” and rather small 3-D control room that was hastily built within the last six weeks.

Comcast, DirecTV and AT&T’s U-verse are carrying the 3-D programming from ESPN. While there were no major problems with the initial 3-D feed from host broadcaster HBS in Johannesburg, the picture froze briefly a few times due to compression issues, something which has been seen this with other earlier 3-D broadcasts. Viewers of the first broadcast said some game shots gave more of a feeling of depth than others, with flags waving in the crowd being one of the most impressive shots.

Occasional 3D FIFA graphics flew across the screen (created with Vizrt 3-D graphics software). The only full-time graphics on the screen were a score bug in the upper left corner of the screen and a small ESPN 3-D logo on the upper right.

Beginning with the World Cup tournament, ESPN has required all commercials for the new channel to be produced in 3-D. As a result, it was estimated that the cost of 3-D commercials increased by 30 to 40 percent. Sony, Pixar, Gillette and Proctor & Gamble were the first to advertise with 3-D spots. The channel also aired a new 3-D “This is SportsCenter” spot, which showed anchor Stan Verrett demonstrating 3-D to Los Angeles Dodger Andre Ethier who accidentally breaks a 3-D camera with a baseball bat.

ESPN (and its parent company Walt Disney) is operating a special laboratory in Austin, TX, where researchers are analyzing user response to the 3-D channel and its ads. The data will be used to enhance and shape future 3-D broadcasts. In a controlled living-room setting, scientists measure heart rate and skin conductivity and track the gaze of up to 4000 participants who will be exposed to new ad models over the Internet, mobile devices and TV screens.

After the World Cup ends, ESPN plans 3-D broadcasts of the MLB Home Run Derby on July 12, the ACC Championship and the BCS National Championship games in college football, and next year’s Big East tournament in college basketball. The network said it expects to carry about 85 3-D broadcasts this year. The rest of the time, the channel goes dark.

So far, there aren’t that many 3-D TV set owners to watch ESPN’s broadcasts in their homes. Certain ESPN restaurants are carrying the programming, as are participating 3D movie theaters, and Sony, a sponsor of the channel’s launch, supplied a number of its new 3-D LCD sets to “ESPN Wide World of Sports” facility in Orlando, FL, where ESPN hosted a viewing party for fans.

Niclas Ericson, TV director for FIFA, told Wired magazine that he expected an audience of “at least a few hundred thousand per match” worldwide to watch the games in 3-D. That’s an inconsequential number compared to the more than 26 billion cumulative viewers estimated to be tuning in to the regular HD broadcasts, but that is expected given the cost and other hurdles consumers must overcome.

Bob Toms, vice president of production enhancements for ESPN, said that the network would have a more usual complement of graphics for the first 3-D event it personally produces, the MLB Home Run Derby in Anaheim, CA, on July 12. But he said ESPN’s overall graphics approach for 3-D will be more subtle than conventional HD to “let people live in the picture more.”

Kevin Stolworthy, senior vice president of ESPN technology, noted that soccer was a particularly challenging sport for 3-D because of its continuous format. He said he’s looking forward to American sports in 3-D that will allow for more replays, which are particularly dramatic in 3-D.

“Soccer is such a tough sport, because it’s nonstop action,” he told reporters. “You see a replay for five seconds, and, boom, you’re cutting back to a live camera.”

By Michael Grotticelli, Broadcast Engineering