Fox Adds To 3D HD Momentum

Will bring live 3D broadcast of BCS Championship to CES, theaters

Fox Sports may push live 3D HD sports closer to everyday reality with its plans to broadcast the BCS college football championship game in Miami, Fla. on Jan. 8 to 3D-equipped projection screens at the Consumer Electronics Shows in Las Vegas and select movie theaters across the country.

Fox’s 3D HD gambit, announced by Fox Sports Chairman David Hill at the 3-D Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles yesterday and reported by B&C sister publication Variety, is the second high-profile 3D HD sport event to be introduced in as many weeks.

Last week, the National Football League (NFL) announced that it will trial high-definition 3D production and presentation technology by broadcasting Thursday night’s game between the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders in 3D HD to movie theaters in Boston, Los Angeles and New York.

Both Fox and the NFL will be using 3D HD production equipment from specialist firm 3ality Digital of Burbank, Calif., which shot the “U2 3D” concert film and also transmitted a live 3D HD interview with Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg to Amsterdam during the IBC show in September.

3ality is one of two big U.S. players in the 3D HD camera space, with the other being Pace HD, which worked with the National Basketball Association (NBA) to produce the 2007 All-Star game in 3D HD. Pace technology was also used by the NBA, Dallas Mavericks and Fox Sports Net Southwest to produce a 3D HD satellite broadcast of a Mavericks game last March. The Mavericks game last March was the second live sporting event to be broadcast in 3D HD via satellite, following a BBC-produced rugby match that was broadcast via satellite in the U.K. earlier that month.

Being able to deliver 3D HD via compressed satellite feeds, as opposed to dedicated fiber optic links, was seen as a technological breakthrough by 3D proponents and sports executives, as it opens up opportunities for broadcasting games to movie theaters or to overseas locales. 

For example, Beverly Hills, Calif.-based RealD, which is providing the projection equipment for the NFL trial, already has deals with 100 exhibition partners. Those include Clearview Cinemas, Mann Theatres and National Amusements, which are providing theaters for the NFL event and collectively have over 160 RealD-equipped theatre locations.

Producing sports in 3D HD remains expensive, with the costs per game estimated to be in the $200,000 range for on-site equipment alone. In his comments at the 3D conference, Fox’s Hill suggested that consumer electronics manufacturers, who are rolling out 3D-capable HDTV sets, would need to subsidize 3D HD productions for them to be economically viable. 

Another possibility, say industry insiders, is for sports with established pay-per-view businesses, such as boxing, wrestling and mixed-martial arts, to adopt the technology.

One of the major stumbling blocks to widespread 3D HD production is the amount of bandwidth required to deliver separate hi-def feeds for both the left and right eye of the viewer, which are combined to create the 3D effect. But technology vendors are seeking ways for 3D HD to be supported by existing HD equipment.

Routing manufacturers like Pro-Bel, for example, say that their 3 gigabit-per-second capable routers, which were initially billed as a solution for 1080 line progressive at 60 frames per second production, could also route two simultaneous 1.5 gigabit-per-second 1080-line interlace HD feeds.

And at IBC, editing supplier Quantel showed a complete post-production workflow for stereoscopic 3D HD in partnership with 3Ality Digital, including special algorithms from 3Ality that can analyze a 3D HD shot and gauge whether it would strain the eyes of a 3D HD viewer. Moreover, Quantel thinks that 3D HD production can be supported with existing Quantel servers and editors by using mezzanine compression.

The company has figured out a system using Panasonic’s AVC-Intra compression scheme that can take the two HD-SDI camera feeds required for 3D HD and compress them down to 100 megabits per second each for editing and playout. The compressed 3D HD workflow, which Quantel showed at IBC, would theoretically allow big sports broadcasters that already have Quantel server-based production systems, like Fox and ESPN, to produce in 3D HD using their existing production gear and routing infrastructure. Quantel said the technology drew interest from Fox and ESPN execs at IBC.

Fox Sports spokesman Lou D’Ermilio said the technical details of the BCS 3D HD production next month are still being worked out. But he confirmed that 3D can be accomplished using some of Fox’s existing HD equipment, and doesn't require a wholesale swapout of production gear like the move from standard-definition production to HD.