Get in the game

TV sports in 3-D is awesome, but don’t load up on nachos

Get in the game

The future of televised sports will quicken your pulse. It’ll give you shivers. It’ll also, occasionally, make you want to throw up. But they’re working on that part.

Last week, amid little fanfare and only modest advance billing, Sony, Fox and a California company called 3ality Digital publicly demonstrated their live, 3-D broadcasting technology, beaming the national championship of U.S. college football to select movie theatres across the United States. And while the matchup between the Oklahoma Sooners and Florida Gators won’t be remembered as a classic, it will still go down in history.

Broadcasters like to promise coverage that is “better than being there,” but now they have a tool that puts that claim within reach. In 3-D, viewers get the sensation of standing in a huddle on the sidelines at Dolphin Stadium; hitting a gap at full speed in front of 80,000 screaming fans; or hauling in a 50-yard bomb in the end zone. Let us state categorically that watching elite football in rich high-definition and three dimensions is, for the most part, totally awesome. Those tight shots of players and coaches huddled on the sidelines? It’s like you’re standing five feet away, doling out Gatorade. Bone-crushing hits and diving catches? You might as well be standing out there in pads, watching the play unfold around you.

But the strongest demonstration of 3-D technology wasn’t even the game at all. It was a two-minute 3-D film called Riding a Blue Dream, which played during a commercial break and featured slow-motion shots of surfers carving up azure waters. It was absolutely mind-blowing—placing the audience right inside the thundering curl of massive cresting waves—and if live sports could ever feature that kind of camera work, you would truly be witnessing a new era in filmed entertainment.

Whether we ever get to that day remains very much up in the air. Like most fledgling technologies, 3-D is buggy and gimmicky. Just 80 movie theatres played last week’s game across the U.S., and there were good reasons why Sony and Fox might have wanted to keep the public unveiling a low-key affair. It’s going to take time and money mastering this new toy, and even then, the business model is not entirely clear.

After 20 minutes of listening to commentator Kenny Albert gush about the 3-D images—“How cool is that in 3-D?!” “Do you think that hurts more in 3-D?!” “How do those tattoos look in 3-D?!” etcetera, etcetera—viewers were wishing the sound would cut out. And that was the least of the problems.

As impressive as the visuals were, it’s not clear how well they will satisfy diehard sports fans. For instance, the 3-D effect is most dramatic on low shots and close-ups. The further you are from the players, the more ordinary the image seems. But, as any sports fan can tell you, the wider aerial shots are important for watching a play unfold. In its eagerness to showcase the technology, Fox leaned heavily on hand-held sideline cameras, which made for some powerful 3-D effects, but was a lousy way to follow what was happening in the game. If they do this when they start rolling out to bigger audiences, true sports fans will tire of 3-D before the first halftime show begins.

More troubling was the tendency of the image to scramble without warning, and with nauseating results. When the camera lost focus, it wasn’t just a minor annoyance, like a screen going fuzzy. The feeling was more like having thick glasses slapped suddenly over your eyes. It happened about five times over three hours and with each recurrence the 30-or-so people in the cinema all groaned in unison. A word to the wise: avoid movie theatre hot dogs at all costs, until this technical wrinkle is ironed out.

For all the apparent enthusiasm for live, 3-D sports, it’s still possible that this will prove to be a dead end for the industry. Broadcasting occasional major events, like the Super Bowl, into movie theatres is one thing, but the technological investment only really makes sense if you can deliver 3-D to the home. Electronics companies would love to see the NFL and other pro leagues embrace the 3-D revolution, as it would likely translate into billions in revenue from selling “3-D ready” TVs in the years ahead. But getting 3-D games onto the TV dial will involve complicated revenue-sharing and broadcast rights agreements. Local network affiliates will rebel against any innovation that eats into the audience for its standard and HD broadcasts, and it’s far from certain that millions of home viewers would rush out to get 3-D glasses, especially if it involves making a hefty upfront investment for a new TV.

For now, 3-D is a promising technology that nobody quite knows what to do with. If they play it right, you will soon know the feeling of being at field level on Super Bowl Sunday. If not, well, you remember what happened to the last 3-D revolution, back in the ’50s.