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Is 3D Technology Here to Stay in Sports Broadcasting?

Two recent announcements would suggest that 3D technology in sports broadcasting is here to stay.

Last week, rugby union, which stages its seventh World Cup in just over 140 days’ time, appointed 3DLive as Official 3D Broadcaster for the New Zealand tournament. The Auckland-based company will deliver a live 3D feed of the Rugby World Cup 2011 Semi-Finals, Bronze Final and Final.

In March, The All England Lawn Tennis Club announced a 3D deal with Sony. For this year’s Wimbledon Grand Slam tournament, the Mens’ Singles Semi Finals, the Mens’ Singles Finals and the Ladies’ Singles Finals will all be screened in High Definition 3D, from a BBC feed, at hundreds of cinemas around the world.

The use of 3D technology in sports broadcasting is relatively new. The NFL first filmed a game with the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders in 3D in December 2008, and then beamed the game to 80 theaters around the country. The world’s first live broadcast of a match in 3D for a public audience took place in February last year, when Sky Sports broadcast the Arsenal versus Manchester United soccer match to nine pubs across the UK and Ireland. The first ever 3D sports broadcast straight to home televisions in the US was a New York Rangers hockey game, which was broadcast by Cablevision on March 24, 2010. The 2010 Masters (golf) tournament was also broadcast in 3D, by Comcast, to consumers with new 3D televisions and 3D enabled-PCs. Sports broadcaster ESPN launched the ESPN 3D network in time for last year’s FIFA soccer World Cup.

The 3D broadcast of the NFL Chargers game, the Arsenal soccer game and the Rangers hockey game were all made by Californian company 3ality Digital, which has created two copyrighted products – 3Flex and 3space. According to its website, 3Flex is “precisely automated camera rigs, high-powered stereo image” while 3space will “change the way you think about S3D production”. 3ality Digital has also used its technology on The Hobbit, The Amazing Spider-man and the U2 3D film. The company recently gave a live demonstration at the NAB technology Show in Las Vegas. In the highly competitive broadcasting industry, the company is now focusing on making 3D technology more cost effective.

Across the pond, the research and development team of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is trialling technologies that will give viewers a greater contextual understanding of live events and broadcasted content. The BBC, which is showing this year’s Wimbledon tournament in 3D, is working on an exciting project that it hopes will be ready for the 2012 Olympic Games. Called 3D ‘rendering’, the team plans to superimpose live sporting footage on a three-dimensional picture of the Olympic Park. This will allow viewers to navigate with a ‘helicopter’s eye view’ and zoom in on specific venues and events. Surely this would almost be as good as being at the venue in person?

So, how has the technology been received by the sports viewer?

Some reviews of the early 3D experience have stated that the pace of the game is too fast for the technology and it better suits action that is slower and lingers. 3D is also criticized for the way it can’t really handle wide angle shots, which are favored by soccer fans. Others have commented that – for 3D – size does indeed matter; the bigger the screen, the better 3D works. Some claim 3D is better suited to certain sports, such as tennis, golf and boxing, as opposed to team stadium sports. The technology also poses challenges for graphics – where to put the box score and statistics is as important as creating the graphics themselves. Because the broadcast has depth, graphics have to be placed in a way that won’t lead to players constantly running through them.

So, is 3D technology in sport broadcasting here to stay? Or is it merely a fad?

On the one hand, supporters will claim that, as technology continues to improve, the viewer’s experience will only get better and better. On the other hand, there are people who claim that 3D technology is merely a passing fad, viewers will get bored and the novelty factor will eventually wear off.
Only time will tell…

Image by Coca-Cola South Africa

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