Bill Griffith
Tuesday March 17th, 2009

Peek around the bend on the technology highway and you'll catch a glimpse of the future -- in 3-D if you're wearing polarizing glasses.

Now that high definition (HD) television has gone mainstream for sports viewing, it's OK to wonder "What's next?'' Sure, HD is great, but the nature of technology is that many people are working hard to make things even better, such as HD in 3-D.

Ask some of the 15,000 who watched last month's NBA's All-Star Saturday in 3-D at 85 theaters around the country. Viewers were jumping out of their seats to cheer diminutive Nate Robinson's dunks in New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles, according to the NBA's Steve Hellmuth, the NBA's executive vice president of operations and technology.

So what about the biggest game of all, the Super Bowl? "The Super Bowl is the absolute killer application,'' said Buddy Mayo, CEO of New Jersey-based Cinedigm, the industry leader in delivering 3-D software and content to theaters.

A 3-D presentation won't be a first for the NFL, which aired a Chargers-Raiders game to invited guests in three theaters across the country last December.

"There were eight cameras used for the broadcast as opposed to 20 to 24 for a regular telecast,'' said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "There were a couple of great shots of the ball coming right at you in a tight spiral. It was so real you wanted to reach up and make the catch.''

One reason is a different approach to using cameras -- leaving a shot on screen and giving the viewer time to digest all the information that's presented instead of making the now-standard quick cuts to other cameras. The NFL has been a leader in expanding the televised sports frontiers from Monday Night Football, to cable coverage, to NFL Sunday Ticket, to leading the adoption of high definition.

So is the question will or when do we see the Super Bowl in 3-D in theater settings across the country? Maybe it will be the coming season's Super Bowl XLIV or XLV in 2011, but bet that it's coming. At first, it may be only for VIP parties, mostly because of the limited number of theaters currently equipped to handle live 3-D events -- about 100 today but one that will be growing exponentially.

And there are issues. For starters, the NFL discourages mass viewing because it cuts the ratings for its broadcast partners and would need to adjust its policy, something it is willing to do. "3-D would be an opportunity to enhance the viewing experience,'' said the NFL's McCarthy. "There's the question of diluting the audience [ratings] to implement new technology. And you're always asking: 'How soon and how expensive?'

One application is instant replay and coaches' challenges. "In 3-D, there's no question about whether the receiver's feet are in bounds,'' said Michael Lewis, CEO of RealD, a Beverly Hills, Calif., company that is the leader in 3-D hardware.

There's no question the movie industry is moving towards 3-D but, unlike the sports-led move to HD, this time sports is following with only special (read Really Big) events likely to be shared in the theater environment.

Televisions with 3-D chips are available, but even the industry is wondering about home applications while acknowledging that widespread use is at least three to five years away. "People would need a new TV, and I cringe when I say that,'' said Lewis.

The current big 3-D release is The Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience, which opened in theaters on Feb. 27. It's a Disney 3-D release that follows the band's recent concert tour and -- important from a marketing perspective -- introduces a new song. "We put you right up on stage,'' said RealD's Lewis.

As for the future, it's not difficult to imagine a band doing a special pre-tour concert to introduce new tour dates and market a new album/DVD. And once one does it successfully, a new market paradigm will be in place.

3-D is the technology that adds depth perception to a two-dimensional picture by using high-speed HD-3-D cameras to rapidly give our brains alternating images to the left and right eyes, providing the viewer wears special -- usually circular polarizing -- glasses.

The technology developed by RealD uses a one-camera technique that takes 144 frames per second, 72 from the perspective of each eye, as opposed to the usual 24 frames per second rate. TV manufacturers are working hard at developing "glasses-free'' sets, but that innovation is farther down the aforementioned technological highway than the evolution we're seeing today.

And that product is attractive. Just as the children. Where sports to drive the HD revolution, major movie studios now are using movies and concerts -- and marketing to the youngest generation -- to increase attendance and fill seats.

Kids know the difference. Attendance at houses showing 3-D films runs 40 percent -- or more -- higher than at houses where the show is in 2-D (standard definition).

Patrick Olearcek, a legal counsel for Mass. Mutual Insurance Company, knows about 3-D because his daughters Caitlin, 8, and Erin, 6, have brought him and his wife, Julie, to Disney 3-D movies, such as Meet The Robinsons, and Bolt.

"They love the shows, and they think the glasses are so cool,'' he said. "They see the commercials for the movies on TV and know what 3-D is. They love the feeling of the characters coming out of the screen at you.''

His kids saw the Jonas Brothers movie on opening weekend. "From a parent's perspective, you're not paying concert prices, you don't have to deal with the traffic -- and they get the equivalent of a front-row seat,'' he said.

The disposable and recyclable glasses are a cost of doing business; however, manufacturers of high-end eyewear are making plans to market designer 3-D glasses, including clip-ons and maybe even contact lenses. But even the present theater-issue ones are nice.

Sam Allis, a columnist for The Boston Globe, recently wrote about taking home the glasses -- as opposed to putting them in the recycling bin -- being his No. 1 memory of the 3-D movie experience.

When HD TV came on the scene, the big arguments were:

From the consumer: "Why should I buy an HD set when there isn't much HD programming?''

From the broadcast industry: "Why should we invest in HD cameras, production trucks, training, and broadcasts when there aren't many HD sets out there?''

Eventually, a critical mass was achieved, and the technology took off on both sides, pushed largely by sports. In a major agreement, the major movie studios, including Sony, Disney, Fox, Paramount, Universal, and Warner Brothers, have settled on a common 3-D technology -- DCI or digital cinema initiatives. And now, with a 40 major films set for release this year, there's a logjam at the consumer end.

Sure, viewers can see the shows in standard def, but there won't be enough 3-D screens for pictures to have extended runs. "We've got about 3,800 screens converted,'' said Cinedigm's Mayo, "and plan to have another 10,000 done in the next three to four years.''

RealD's Lewis figures James Cameron's anticipated blockbuster Avatar -- a futuristic sci-fi thriller that's coming late in the year -- will open in 4,000 3-D theatres. There are even fewer -- about 100 -- that have the higher level of technology to present "live'' 3-D broadcasts of special events -- games, lectures, concerts, fashion shows, premieres or finales of TV series.

"The goal is to have at least one in every major market,'' said Mayo.

Mayo sees the potential for all sorts of sports -- including boxing, golf, tennis, extreme sports, motor racing as well as the traditional big four US major league sports -- being aired live in 3-D. But the circumstances have to be right.

"Sporting events are a one-shot deal,'' said Mayo. "You see the game, and it's over. There's no shelf life. So you have to be sure to have a guaranteed audience and plenty of sponsorship. The box office take alone won't pay the costs.''

Concerts, on the other hand, are a different model. "They can have legs for extending showing and offer marketing opportunities down the road for concert tickets, CDs, DVDs, and merchandise,'' Mayo said. "Anything you think is better in HD is made that much better again in 3-D.''

Like that killer ap, the Super Bowl.

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