ESPN will flex its 3D production muscle with its coverage of the powerhouse USC vs. Ohio State college football matchup Sept. 12. It will be the sports giant's first 3D test being vetted before a general viewing audience after two years of privately testing the technology, which has become a growing piece of the theatrical film market.
ESPN has previously produced college football and basketball games in 3D for test purposes, and also shot its Summer X-Games event in 3D for theatrical release.
The USC-Ohio State game will be offered in HD and standard-def for home viewers, but will be delivered in 3D at The Galen Center on the USC campus and at a handful of theaters-Columbus, Ohio; Hartford, Conn.; and Hurst, Tex. ESPN won't collect a gate for the venue showings, but will instead give fans a chance to win tickets via radio station promotions, including ESPN stations in L.A. and Dallas and WBNS Columbus.
ESPN says the production test will include the first true stereoscopic 3D graphics in a telecast. It will also be kicking the tires on "various transport mechanisms," including cinema projection and "consumer-sized" LCD monitors, just not in any consumers' homes this time around.
3D HD football coverage has been broadcast live to theater audiences before, first with the National Football League's broadcast of a regular season San Diego Chargers-Los Angeles Raiders game last December to VIP audiences in New York and Los Angeles, then with the collaboration between Fox and Sony last January to broadcast the BCS college-football championship game to paying customers in over 80 3D-equipped theaters. The National Basketball Association and Turner Sports conducted a similar live 3D broadcast to theaters for the All-Star Saturday Night skills competition last February.
ESPN's 3D HD broadcast will be produced separately from its conventional HD coverage and will have its own trucks, crews and commentators. Mark Jones and Bob Davie will call the 3D game, while Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit will handle the 2D duties. The 3D broadcast will be shot using seven cameras located on the opposite sideline from the standard 3D broadcast, which will be using about 18 cameras, says Anthony Bailey, ESPN VP of emerging technology. One of the 3D HD cameras will be placed in an end zone to capture head-on shots at the goal line, a position which has yielded some of the most powerful 3D images in previous football productions.
There are two main providers of 3D stereoscopic HD production gear today, PACE and 3ality Digital, both of which use Sony HD cameras in special configurations to generate the "left-eye" and "right-eye" feeds needed to create the stereoscopic 3D effect. The NFL and BCS games were produced using 3ality gear, which was incorporated into standard mobile production trucks. The NBA has relied on PACE's technology, which has previously required the use of a separate PACE mobile unit.
For the USC vs. Ohio State broadcast, ESPN will be using PACE's system, but it won't be bringing its own truck, says Bailey. That's because PACE has developed a new 3D "add-on" unit that ESPN will use with a conventional HD truck from NEP Supershooters. ESPN will rely on Cinedigm, which provided transmission services for the BCS and NBA All-Star broadcasts, to backhaul MPEG-2-compressed 3D feeds to the theaters.
Bailey says that 3D HD camera and video processing technology has improved markedly since ESPN began experimenting with 3D in 2005, but that covering football still presents some unique challenges, particularly when following a long pass play, kickoff or punt. While ESPN will employ several cameras in the low-to-the-ground positions that are particularly effective in 3D, it will also still use a traditional high camera position.
"You still need to present the game to the fan the way the fan is used to seeing the game," says Bailey. "You still have to set up the high shot so the fan can get a feel for what's going on."
While zooming in on the action has also been a stumbling block for 3D HD cameras, Bailey says the PACE cameras, which rely on dedicated operators to manually adjust the depth of field, are capable of zooming while keeping the 3D image in perspective. He adds that 3D replays will also be available just as easily as conventional HD replays.
Bailey is quick to emphasize that the USC-Ohio State broadcast is still a continuation of ESPN's R&D work on 3D, and says the network still hopes to learn more about optimum camera positions and other production variables. It is also interested in viewer feedback to the broadcast, particularly from those viewers watching on 3D-equipped LCD monitors.
"We're going to learn a lot from this, not only in the theaters, but to show what consumers could have at their house and what the appetite of consumers would be to wear [3D] glasses to watch television at night," he says. "That will probably decide whether be it will be mainstream and come to the home, or stays a big-event, in-the-theater type of thing."