Future of 3-D Still Looks Fuzzy

Sony Chairman Sir Howard Stringer boldly declared at the recent International Consumer Electronics Show that 3-D technology becoming mainstream across movies and TV would happen “sooner than we think.” It was a claim bolstered by Sony and several other manufacturers at the trade event unveiling prototype televisions with 3-D capability, along with the numerous 3-D Hollywood features currently in production.

Not surprisingly, sports played a prominent role in the various CES-related 3-D showcases. Sony partnered with Fox Sports, 3ality Digital and others for a live, national distribution of the BCS championship game on Jan. 8 in specially equipped theaters that included a prominent component in Las Vegas, which hosted the show. Panasonic featured NBA 3-D footage taken by Pace as part of its CES presentation.

But much like trying to watch 3-D pictures without the special glasses, the immediate future for the next-generation technology is relatively blurry. Here is a look at several key elements regarding the prevailing theme at their year’s CES:

The business model for live sports in 3-D remains undefined
The BCS game reached more than 80 theaters coast to coast, a distribution that will be replicated next month for the NBA’s All-Star Saturday night. While specific ticket sales for the event had not yet been fully tabulated as of early last week — roughly 16,000 seats were available — at least 19 of the participating theaters sold out, according to 3ality executives.

User and press reviews for the college football event, however, were fairly mixed, with fans unaccustomed to and in some cases outright hostile toward the occasional technical glitches, relative paucity of graphics and much-lower camera angles than for traditional broadcasts. To that end, many industry leaders expect 3-D technology in sports, at least in the short run, to be at best an ancillary revenue stream.

“This stuff is very cool, but would you definitely want to watch this for sports events? I don’t know if your brain can really handle it,” said Marty Moe, AOL senior vice president.

There is a very big difference between live 3-D and post-produced 3-D
Similar to Moe’s comments, the primary complaints for the BCS presentation and other live games that have been shown in 3-D relate to the sometimes jarring switching of cameras. That has led to difficulties in following the action and absorbing all the additional visual data.

But in post-produced 3-D releases, such as the award-winning U2 3D debuted by 3ality at last year’s CES and a series of recent animated and youth-oriented features, all the rough edges have been smoothed. Technical glitches are nowhere to be found, and the experience has been fully optimized to take advantage of what 3-D has to offer. Such a paradigm suggests a potential market opportunity in which major sports events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four are re-aired in the markets of the winning teams.

Glasses are definitely part of the near-term future of 3-D
Thankfully gone are the cardboard lenses of decades past in favor of more sturdy and stylish specs, some of which have the 3-D rendering technology included within them. A person still needs to wear the glasses to consume any 3-D content, though, and when the viewer does put them on, it’s difficult to do much of anything else but watch, eliminating a lot of the social element that is so crucial to sports. Several set manufacturers, including Samsung and Sharp, are experimenting with 3-D displays that don’t require glasses, but the first stop on the development trail there will be commercial applications that are less user-intensive than an in-home or cinema setting.

How the technology transfer happens will be important to watch
There is not yet an industry standard to oversee the migration of 3-D content from the studio to the home, and every relevant party in the industry is eager to avoid another format war along the lines of Betamax/VHS or, much more recently, Blu-ray/HD DVD.

Gaming will be an important trailblazer in the advancement of 3-D technology
Also a post-produced environment, gaming enjoys the distinct advantage of appealing to younger consumers who pride themselves on being first in line to consume new products and services. The CES show floor was rife with glasses and monitors built for 3-D gaming, including a new set of 3-D glasses from graphics outfit Nvidia that operate wirelessly in tandem with a computer.

Big industry names are very interested in 3-D, and for a variety of applications
The Las Vegas screening of the BCS game attracted several names of the bold-faced variety, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts, and Glenn Britt, Time Warner Cable president and chief executive. They are far more than mere social gadflies. Cuban helped formed HD Net, recently invested in Carmike Cinemas and has been a major proponent of 3-D, while Roberts and Britt see a potential treasure trove in home applications, particularly in the video-on-demand offerings that are their bread-and-butter. They’re far from alone. Many of the major sports leagues and broadcast TV networks are also exploring 3-D.

“This whole thing is sort of the LSD trip of sports,” Cuban said. “But it’s going to get a lot better. It’s still really the first inning of this whole thing. It’s another perspective and another way to consume a game.”

By Eric Fisher, SportsBusiness Journal