|A Creative COW Magazine Extra
Brristol, Connecticut USA
© 2010, CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.
An all-3D sports network sound like a long shot to you? ESPN has heard it before — over 30 years ago, when there were very few takers willing to bet on an all-sports network at all. As ESPN's VP of Emerging Technologies, Anthony Bailey is one of the people responsible for what many predict will be one of the most important players in the 3D home delivery game. In this feature from Creative COW Magazine, Anthony tells us about a few of the hurdles he and his team have overcome so far..
ESPN was not the first to announce an all-3D network, but their announcement of the launch of ESPN 3D to coincide with the World Cup in June 2010 has been the most dramatic. The vast majority of live 3D programming so far has been sports, in live venues, and sports fans have already shown that they’re willing to pay a premium price to see it — only natural, given the passion around the inherent spectacle of sports.
Only a handful of venues have been able to offer live 3D HD sports thus far. The production of“NBA All-Star Saturday Night” festivities in February 2009 was the first major 3D presentation, shown only in several hundred Cinedigm Certified movie theaters, in collaboration with the NBA, Turner Sports and Cinedigm.
ESPN’s presentation of the college football match of USC at Ohio State the following September aired in even fewer venues, USC’s Galen Theater, theaters in Columbus, Ohio, and the ESPN Zone in Los Angeles among them. Even so, this was the event that proved the turning point toward 3D’s Holy Grail: 3D home delivery.
Anthony Bailey is ESPN’s VP of Emerging Technology. He spoke to us as ESPN’s Emerging Technology Group prepared for the February 25 taping of a Harlem Globetrotters game in Orlando, Florida, at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney Resort — an important next step toward ESPN 3D’s June launch.
“ESPN’s interest in 3D started with our CEO, almost as a science project,” he says. “A couple of our engineers were also interested in it, so, we decided, ‘let’s take a look.’ We got some cameras in here, talked to people like Vince Pace [CEO of PACE] and Steve Schklair [CEO of 3ality Digital Systems], and we started just doing simple little tests. We did a test where we shot a little bit of our studio shows, then took it out to shoot a little of the Summer and Winter X Games. That really got us to sit there and say, ‘Hey, this is something we think we could do!’ It grew from that. A 3D network was never there in the beginning, but it started to become a reality after the USC-Ohio State game. We realized that not all of the tools for 3D broadcasting are there yet — but enough of them are there that you can build a business around it.
“We also treated the USC-Ohio State Game as a testing ground to make sure that we didn't lose any of the features that we normally would have in a 2D game. So, we did edited pieces, the yellow “first and 10” line, the mini board — that constant clock and score — and inserted ads, using movie trailers. We used that game to figure out whether the entire workflow we used in a 2D game works in a 3D game — and we found that it did.
“The biggest issue is that most stadiums are not built with the best locations for 3D in mind. In 3D, you want to be lower and closer, and most stadiums are built where your game cameras are high up. So, one of the challenges is finding the proper location in stadiums to put your 3D game cameras without killing too many seats, and still being able to show the entire field or court and tell the story of the game.
“Wherever you move these cameras in a facility, you are in locations where there is no infrastructure. To take the USC-Ohio State Game for example, we had to run our own fiber to it, we had to run power to it.
So, it's going to take some time to get the stadiums to become 3D friendly. It’s a challenge because where you WANT to set up and where you CAN set up are two different things.”
“We build the camera rig out in the truck area, and we make sure that the cameras in the rig converge properly. Then we bring it into its location, run fiber and power, and do the whole thing again. It takes a little bit of time to set up, but you have to be sure that the cameras are converging on the same location.
“The cameras are not fixed, though. We allow them — and NEED them — to zoom in to focus, but we have to limit the amount of zoom. Meaning, we can't let them go the full length of the lens, or else the cameras start losing convergence. That's something we’re playing with as we try to get our arms around it, and I think it could be a little bit of a change compared to 2D.”
We asked Anthony about other changes, and he pointed to the truck. “There is one Convergence Engineer per camera, constantly communicating with the cameraman. There is also a stereographer in the truck. In addition to working the convergence engineers, the stereographer works with both the cameraman and the director, who are both seeing only 2D. Only the stereographer sees all of the cameras in 3D.
“Since the director, and everybody else in the truck, is only seeing Preview and Air, the stereographer listens to the director, and is always looking one or two shots ahead, to ensure that the cameras are converging properly. This includes watching convergence across shots, so that a cut from the convergence of one camera to another isn’t going to hurt someone’s eyes. The stereographer will sometime recommend not taking a shot, because the difference in covergence is too great."
Here’s what we know: ESPN’s broadcast of the World Cup match between Mexico and South Africa on June 11, 2010, like everyone else’s, will take its 3D feed from Host Broadcast Services, who will also exclusively provide the world’s feed for SD, HD, the web and mobile devices.
ESPN’s slate of homegrown 3D events begins with the Summer X Games in Los Angeles, starting July 29.
They have committed to airing 85 live events in the coming year.They have not made any public commitments to 3D programming past that.
Here’s what we don’t know: the specifics of how you’re going to see it at home. When we asked about their approach to compression and encoding, Anthony told us that they’re still working on it. “We need to understand what our partners are going to want for the people at the other end of our transmission. After we understand that, we’ll work with the different vendors to get us there.”
ESPN also continues to negotiate with potential carriers, including Comcasat and Time Warner (no public comment yet on DirecTV), all of whom have presumably asked one of our big questions: what happens to ESPN 3D after those first 85 events that carry us into the summer of 2011? What will it take for ESPN to commit to going beyond the first year?
Transmission, carriage and long-range plans are for the business folks to figure out, says Anthony. For the sporting events themselves, he knows what his greatest challenge is. “In the whole chain, the biggest thing we have to take care of right now is people. We have to not only take time to train the cameraman, but also the different positions within the truck that are essentially new, including the convergence engineer and the stereographer.”
“The directors too — because we've only had a couple of directors do any of our shows. We need to get more in the chair, get them to understand the difference between 2D and 3D, to really understand the job, and allow them to experiment.
“We also need to add enough new people with these skills so that we can get some of them off the road. There have been a bunch of people who've done all of our 3D events so far, and they go out to every test we've been doing. We can’t have them stuck going to all 85 events in the coming year.”
If an all-sports, all-3D network seems a bit of a stretch, it is worth recalling that the notion of an all-sports network was every bit as much as a stretch when ESPN began in 1979. The first sporting event covered was a slow-pitch softball game, and early coverage included ping-pong and professional wrestling.
Needless to say, they have since then more than made their case.
Even with some major questions unresolved, awfully close to kick-off time, the smart money has shown that it has been unwise to bet against ESPN’s programming strategies, which now include 3D.
Anthony Bailey joined ESPN in 1996. His Emerging Technologies team is responsible for developing many of ESPN’s on-air advancements over the past 30 years, including the Virtual Pitch Analysis, Huck-O-Meter and the Emmy-winning EA Virtual Playbook.
Prior to holding this position, Anthony was the Vice President of Media Applications in ESPN’s MIT department where his responsibilities included managing ESPN’s application development team, which included writing custom software code for the “Bottom Line” (on-screen score update scroll), studio automation, real-time scoring and the ESPN Data Group.
To learn more, join Anthony Bailey and stereoscopic 3D pioneer Vince Pace at the 2010 NAB Show in Las Vegas for the panel discussion, “ESPN: Scoring a Field Goal in S3D Sports,” Monday, April 25, Room N109.
Joining them will be ESPN's Bob Toms, Vice President, Production Enhancements & Interactive TV, and Phil Orlins, Coordinating Producer, ESPN 3D & X Games for a closer look at the details of workflow, distribution, and the technical and creative challenges of 3D sports.
Ed. note: This is obviously a rapidly breaking story. Be sure to check back for updates as ESPN 3D gets closer to launch.