What to expect from ESPN 3D.

The stadium scene.
Jan. 6 2010 1:00 PM

Going Deep

What to expect from ESPN 3D.

(Continued from Page 1)

Bailey, though, says that the 3-D technology the network is going with now is pretty much what the NFL used for its 2008 demo. That means the new network's success or failure is going to come down to camerawork. For 3-D sports to work, the broadcaster needs a dedicated camera crew that's providing 3-D-friendly angles on the action. At the event I attended, we were seeing the same shots that the regular TV audience was getting. That meant there were lots of wide shots of players standing at the line of scrimmage, a point of view that didn't look all that amazing in 3-D. When shot from that far away, the players appear so tiny that the extra depth 3-D broadcasts can provide is entirely absent.

In my experience, close-ups are where the technology really shines. You're close enough to the action that the added depth starts to matter. Bailey says also that in its broadcast of the USC-Ohio State game, ESPN experimented with low-angle shots that did provide something of a ball-in-the-face effect. Three hours' worth of pigskin flying at your head would make you nauseous, but an occasional through-the-screen shot would do much to convince doubters that 3-D adds something extra to conventional broadcasts.

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ESPN's challenge, then, is to deliver enough 3-D coverage to make the technology worthwhile while still creating a compelling, coherent broadcast. While long-range shots don't work the best for 3-D, there is a good reason why most sporting events are shot from that angle. In team sports, any individual player's actions are disorienting without the context of the entire field. And that's why a football game doesn't just consist of close-ups of Jay Cutler.

Bailey says ESPN's camera placement strategies will evolve as the network gets more experience with filming in 3-D. "We're going to keep finding the most optimum spot, which typically isn't in your traditional broadcast spot in arenas," he says.

I'm also guessing that the worldwide leader will learn that some sports just don't work well in 3-D. Rather than football or soccer, I'm guessing the technology might look the best in service of something like tennis or boxing. With limited participants in an enclosed space, you wouldn't have to worry about long shots and could emphasize the close-range angles that would allow the action to jump off the screen. I don't know whether it would be entirely enjoyable to have a fuzzy ball or a fist fly at your face, but it would be interesting.

ESPN has committed to testing out its 3-D programming for at least a year. But will that be long enough for sports fans to embrace a technology that is still finding its way? Much as it took early 20th-century moviegoers some time to acclimate to watching 2-D cinema, modern viewers don't yet know what to expect from 3-D entertainment. They'll have to learn—and the learning process will be an expensive one. Unless you plan to watch these games at a bar, you'll need a 3-D-capable television, 3-D glasses, and possibly a 3-D box, plus you might have to buy each broadcast on a pay-per-view basis. That's a significant capital outlay for the chance to feel like you're right there at midfield with Cuauhtémoc Blanco.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.