By Neil Schneider
NOTE: The photographs shown in this article were captured with a stereoscopic 3D camera, and then re-aligned through Stereo Photo Maker software. While this is a good approximation of the actual 3D experience shown on 3D HDTVs, the actual game was both clearer and brighter. These images were captured on a Panasonic Viera VT20 3D HDTV.
I’m a gamer at heart, and I have always been hesitant about endorsing 3D sports as the ultimate driver for the 3D industry. All the consumer data we have points to video games above all else, and I haven’t been impressed with a single stereoscopic 3D sports broadcast…until now.
Hockey Night in Canada debuted their first 3D broadcast last night with an action packed game between the Montreal Canadians (my original home team) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (my current home team). Sponsored by Panasonic and equipped with Panasonic/3eality rigs, CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada proved to be a clean mix of hockey action and 3D effectiveness.
I have always been a critic of paper thin separation levels or super moderate 3D settings, and I was pleased to see a more aggressive effort by the stereographers. It was enough to demonstrate the benefits of stereoscopic 3D, but not too much to make people sick.
However, this alone wasn’t the selling factor. 3D hockey is as much about Canadian pride as it is about innovation. During the broadcast, announcers compared it to early hockey history with the first pioneering broadcasts that only a small community of people that had the radios (yes, radios!) to listen with.
What really made the evening work was the informality of it all. Yeah, everybody knows it was heavily sponsored by Panasonic, and yes, the word “3D” was spread around like punctuation – but it was easy to see past the sponsor’s influence. There wasn’t a stuffed shirt in the house, and it just seemed as though everyone was having fun. Even the audience got into the spirit of things with 3D being seen as a real addition, and not a gimmick to grab a few extra viewers.
While the 3:1 score of the Maple Leafs over the Canadians was a nice touch, watching hockey broadcasting legend Don Cherry in his 3D glory made the evening worthwhile. Over the course of decades, Don’s suits have grown more and more colorful and elaborate. It’s as though his tailor has been forced to compensate for a 2D world by going over the top and then some. Now that he’s being broadcast in stereoscopic 3D, do you think he will drop down to simple plaid?
If you have never seen a 3D broadcast on television or through cable before, the format is a side by side image with 50% width for each image and 100% height. So instead of 1920X1080i (i=interlaced), each eye is a squished to 960X1080i and combined into a single frame. When a 3D HDTV receives this, it separates the left and right views, and scales them to proper proportions before displaying on the screen. Cable providers don’t have the means to add extra 3D bandwidth at a whim, so this is a quick fix to get around the problem.
You’d think that this missing information would make a dramatic difference in image quality, but it doesn’t. However, several codec developers (e.g. Sensio, RealD, TDVision Corp, and more) are trying to come up with ways to maintain the original HD image quality without using extra bandwidth.
As I mentioned earlier, the technical implementation of the 3D hockey broadcast was very good. The problems had less to do with the 3D, and more to do with camera placement. For example, when things got close up, the vertical beams between the rink’s glass plates created uncomfortable 3D scenarios. Cameras need to be in places where the glass is unencumbered 100% of the time – we might even see some rinks adjusted or modernized to take this into account.
I was surprised that even though the broadcast required an HDMI connector, the 3D mode wasn’t automatically activated on my Panasonic Viera VT20. It’s just a standard side by side mode, so it was easy to turn on – but this may not have been obvious to first time users. Future broadcasts should include some basic instructions, or just encouragement to visit a website for instructions. These are minor things, though.
So let me conclude by saying that 3D sports has promise. Unlike video games where the demand is natural, viral, and pre-existing, stereoscopic 3D sports will take off if the content is scheduled on a regular basis and isn’t treated as one-off broadcasts. Most important, it has to be fun. Congratulations to everyone involved for a great night of 3D hockey!