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Shift to 3-D TV broadcasts will begin with college football fans

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- When South Florida's Maikon Bonani booted a 43-yard field goal to beat Kansas on a Friday night in 2008, I watched from my press box seat on the 48-yard line. Even though I saw the kick go through the uprights with my own eyes, I looked up at the HDTV monitors overhead to check the replay so I could include precise details in my column.

Despite all that, I never truly saw the kick until I watched it in a hotel conference room in Newport Beach, Calif., in January.

There, ESPN executives offered a demonstration of the network's new 3-D capability. Unbeknownst to those of us at the game, USF-Kansas served as the first field test of a college football game. The demonstration, which also included clips from the 2009 USC-Ohio State game and the Winter X-Games, featured footage of Bonani's kick.

In my column off the game, I described the kick this way: The ball began its flight wide of the right upright, then hooked inside just before it reached the post. After watching the kick in 3-D, I knew I hadn't come close to capturing the drama of the moment. Watching in 3-D, I saw what only the players on the field and the fans sitting directly behind the goalpost had seen that night. The game-winning kick hooked in by mere inches, and just in time. Had it waited another millisecond to turn, it would have hit off the upright.

As I stood there looking like a Roy Orbison impersonator in my specially polarized glasses, I made a mental note to call my wife and apologize for the money we'll be dropping on 3-D televisions in the next few years. Because, no matter how attached you are to your current HD flatscreen, you're going to want to throw it in the trash once you see sports in 3-D.

This is not meant to serve as an advertisement for ESPN or for any of the consumer electronics companies whose products I may mention below. I'm not receiving any promotional equipment or reward of any kind; in fact, I'd be fired if I were. This is just a warning for all of you out there who, like me, can't resist the lure of the Next Big Gadget.

Sometime between five and 10 years from now, most of us will watch our sports in 3-D, and we'll wonder why anyone bothers to actually attend the games.

In the U.S., the shift likely will begin with college football fans. While ESPN's first live broadcast of an event in 3-D will take place in at the World Cup in June when Mexico faces South Africa, the network's first regularly planned 3-D coverage will come in the form of a 3-D college football game of the week.

Just imagine if the technology had been in place this season. Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh would have blasted right off our screens. We could have shared the fear of the poor Big 12 quarterback Suh chased on a given Saturday.

As you read this, ESPN staffers are working at the ESPN Wide World of Sports section of Walt Disney World to perfect the art of the 3-D broadcast. If you're a youth soccer player in a tournament at Disney World and you see someone pointing a camera rig with two lenses at you, that's an ESPN cameraman working out the kinks before he points that rig -- designed by Vince Pace, who also worked on Avatar -- at a USC player in the fall. If the camera looks strange, it's because it's actually two cameras. One lens stands in for the viewers left eye, while another stands in for the right.

"We're closing the gap between what we know and what we don't know," said Chuck Pagano, ESPN's executive vice president in charge of technology. "It's still a science project."

Why is ESPN working so hard to develop 3-D broadcasts as soon as possible? Because the people have spoken. "After the USC-Ohio State game, the focus group was one of the best we've ever had," said Anthony Bailey, the vice president of emerging technology who first broached the idea of 3-D broadcasts four years ago.

Work remains. Last week, ESPN tested its 3-D capabilities during a Harlem Globetrotters performance at ESPN The Weekend. As we watched on active and passive sets (more on that later), the depth was spectacular. Even though we knew the Washington Generals would lose, 3-D made it feel as if we stood on the court during the game. When Globetrotter Kevin "Special K" Daley jabbed his index finger as he addressed the crowd, I jumped out of the way to avoid getting poked. Unfortunately, the crew missed on the shot of the night. One of the Globetrotters' signature bits is tossing a bucket of confetti into the crowd. When Nathaniel "Big Easy" Lofton released the contents of his bucket, the camera operator didn't get in position fast enough. The confetti still looked cool with the added depth, but the camera wasn't in place to provide the sensation of the confetti flying directly at the audience.

Also, some of the quick camera cuts were disorienting; every once in a while, I had to remove my glasses to get my bearings. As he supervised the crew in the production truck, ESPN vice president of production enhancements Bob Toms explained that the crew will need time to practice with the equipment to eliminate some of the quirks. Essentially, crew members may have to forget some of the things they learned about shooting in 2-D.

"To tilt down and follow the ball -- which really wouldn't affect anything if you were doing anything else -- is a bit jarring here," Toms said. "So everything needs to move more slowly. The graphics have to be a little simpler. There's so much information that the human eye has to take in that it doesn't take in real life."

Last week, each eye took in 60 frames per second. The images alternated between the left and right eyes using a shutter effect. "It's like a little Venetian blind: open, close, open, close, open, close," Sony content manager John Wyckoff told CNN last year. The frames shutter so quickly that when the brain reassembles them, it produces a three-dimensional image.

The shutter effect is achieved either with a fairly expensive TV that emits images that correspond to differing levels of polarization on a cheap pair of 3-D glasses (passive) or by more expensive glasses ($75-$150 a pair) that do the shuttering for images produced by a less expensive TV with a high refresh rate (240 Hz or more).

This will be the VHS vs. BetaMax argument for 3-D television: Will consumers simply wait for the prices to drop on passive TVs, or will they shell out for expensive glasses?

It's difficult to imagine throwing a Super Bowl party and writing BYOG on the invitation, but Sony is banking on just that. Last week, we watched the Globetrotters on a pair of 52-inch Sony Bravia broadband-capable units that debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show early this year. A Sony spokesman said he wasn't certain of the retail price, but he said that by the time the set hits the mass market, it shouldn't cost much more than an existing top-of-the-line 52-inch Bravia ($2,499). How much more isn't clear, but Samsung provided an idea last week when it announced its own line of 3-D-ready LED units to be delivered beginning this month. A 46-inch unit is on sale now on Amazon.com for $2,359.96, while a 55-inch is available at Best Buy for $3,299.99.

The Sony glasses I tested had some issues. They cut out at times, and occasionally an odd color pattern crossed my field of vision. But when they did work -- which was most of the time -- the picture was incredible. It was even better than the picture produced by a Hyundai passive set (about $4,800) on the other side of the room. The difference? The passive picture never had an issue.

Besides the price of the set, the active may have another advantage in that Sony plans to eventually offer a free upgrade that will allow Playstation 3 owners to play games and watch Blu-Ray movies in 3-D. "A big part of what's going to drive this is gamers," ESPN's Pagano said. "They're going to buy the TV sets to hook up their Playstations in 3-D." Pagano knows the other big drivers of the 3-D boom will be sports fans.

This isn't going to be like Laserdisc, MiniDisc, or any of the other technological marvels now relegated to the junk drawers of America. People will want to watch sports in 3-D. I remember the first time I saw a football game in HD. Multiply that feeling by 10, and that's how I felt the first time I saw one in 3-D.

But will consumers be willing to pay for another platform shift? Probably, because price won't be so much of an issue in a few years. When electronics prices drop, they drop. In 2003, a 50-inch Panasonic plasma TV retailed for $11,000. In 2008, I bought a more advanced 50 Panasonic plasma for $1,600. Today, a 50-inch Panasonic plasma sells for $1,300.

The more important question is this: Will cable companies -- such as Time Warner Cable -- and satellite providers provide the infrastructure to distribute 3-D broadcasts? Pagano, who has been at ESPN since people scoffed at the idea of an all-sports network, believes demand will drive distribution. "It's going to be an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, process," he said. "It's no different than when we did HD. It's almost déjà vu."

So get ready. We're going to see footballs zipping straight off the screen. When we watch the next Winter Olympics, ski jumpers may hurtle directly into our living rooms. Just like HD, 3-D will change the way we watch sports forever -- or at least until the next thing comes along.

Personally, I'm hoping the next thing is a hologram of a sporting event. Remember early in Star Wars when R2-D2 broadcast the 3-D hologram of Princess Leia? That's the basic idea. CNN scratched the surface in 2008 when it beamed political correspondentJessica Yellin into Wolf Blitzer's studio, but can it translate to sports?

"We just did that this weekend," ESPN's Bailey said last week. "We did it with Dwight Howard. We beamed him in from Orlando to our studios in Bristol."

Hopefully, Howard asked for Obi-Wan Kenobi's help, too.

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