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3D HD Mavericks Take to the Skies

The case for 3D high-definition technology got a major boost last week as the regional sports network Fox Sports Net Southwest, the Dallas Mavericks and the NBA teamed up to deliver the first live 3D hi-def broadcast via satellite in the U.S.

The Mavericks' March 25 home game against the Los Angeles Clippers was produced in 3D HD and delivered via satellite to the Magnolia Theater in Dallas, using Pace 3D cameras to shoot the game, Harris MPEG-4 encoders to compress the signals and Sony CineAlta 4K digital cinema projectors to display it to several hundred VIPs and invited fans. Even fans got gear: 3D glasses.

FSN Southwest underwrote the production, which is estimated to have cost around $200,000, and the NBA provided satellite capacity.

The Mavericks/Clippers contest wasn't the first 3D HD game, just the first one beamed to a U.S. location via satellite rather than via fiber-optic links. Last season's All-Star game and Game 2 of the NBA Finals were shown in 3D.

For keepers of HD records, the BBC and The3DFirm first teamed on a live 3D HD broadcast via satellite, showing a rugby match between Scotland and England to a select audience at Riverside Studios in London on March 8.

Like the Mavericks and hi-def programmer HDNet, the Magnolia Theater is owned by entrepreneur and hi-def proponent Mark Cuban, perhaps the NBA's most colorful owner.

According to Mavericks director of broadcasting Dave Evans, Cuban conceived of the idea for the 3D HD broadcast in Dallas after attending the All-Star Game 3D showing last winter, and approached FSN Southwest for its support.

FSN Southwest and the Mavericks initially planned to use fiber from Level 3 Communications to deliver the 3D HD signals to the theater. But two weeks before the broadcast, FSN discovered that connecting the last mile to the theater was proving problematic and the fiber link might not be ready for game day.

Fox and the Mavs contacted the NBA, which was already considering a test of satellite transmission for 3D HD, to see if the lower bandwidth of satellite transponders could still deliver a high-quality 3D HD experience. The NBA offered C-band capacity it leases from Intelsat for testing, and the week before the game, executives traveled to Pace headquarters in Burbank, Calif., to uplink and downlink some test signals. Pace and NBA officials liked what they saw.

Using a satellite is an important step. The Pace/Cameron Fusion camera system uses two hi-def cameras as a single unit, generating images for both the left eye and right eye that when projected simultaneously onto a large screen, deliver a very lifelike 3D effect. But the bandwidth implications are significant—each Fusion camera unit pumps out two uncompressed 1.5 gigabit-per-second (Gbps) HD signals that need to make it to two digital cinema projectors.

For the All-Star Game, the NBA used two “dark” fiber paths to deliver uncompressed 1.5 Gbps signals a short distance across Las Vegas. For Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA and Pace used JPEG-2000 compression to fit the video into two separate 270 megabit (Mbps) fiber paths from San Antonio back to Cleveland. Both data rates are exponentially higher than the bit rate afforded by conventional satellite transponders.

But for the Mavericks game, FSN Southwest, the Mavericks and the NBA were able to use Harris MPEG-4 encoders to take the uncompressed camera feeds and create two 20 Mbps streams that were combined into one 40 Mbps ASI stream to fit on one C-band satellite transponder. The satellite signal was received at the theater and decoded back to two uncompressed 1.5 Gbps hi-def signals, then fed into the Sony projectors.

“I was at the theater, and I thought it was spectacular,” says Mike Rokosa, VP of engineering for NBA Entertainment. “I was very happy with the quality, and it was cool to be in there with a bunch of rabid fans yelling at the screen every time something good or bad was called in their direction.”

Mike Anastassiou, senior executive producer of FSN Southwest, directed the game from the Pace production truck wearing 3D glasses, with Evans serving as executive producer. He found that compared to normal HD production, the 3D cameras responded to less camera movement; letting the players come to the camera, as opposed to panning to follow them or rapidly switching shots, was more effective in creating a “courtside seat effect.”

“I let my shots breathe, and didn't cut in as many 'hero shots,'” Anastassiou says.

The NBA is considering another 3D HD production this year, with the Finals a distinct possibility. Unlike 3D HD films, which have been successful for theater owners, live 3D HD events like the Mavericks game don't make money, but are considered an expensive investment in HD's future.

“This is another one of the steppingstones to 3D HD reaching widespread acceptance as an entertainment medium,” Pace says. “We want to try to bring as good an experience as we can to the viewer, and that proof of technology needs to happen before we can say how we can make it more cost-effective.”