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CES 2010: ESPN Details 3D Plans

While ESPN has yet to line up carriage for its new 3D network, most of the technical and operational plans appear to be in place for the new network, which will launch in June and is being sponsored by Sony Electronics.

Interviewed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Thursday afternoon, ESPN VP of emerging technology Anthony Bailey said that ESPN 3D will rely on 3D camera systems from Burbank, Calif.-based PACE, one of two major U.S. suppliers of 3D HD production technology. The other is 3ality Digital, which is also based in Burbank.

While ESPN is open to using other 3D vendors, PACE has already handled all of ESPN's previous 3D tests and Bailey believes that founder Vince Pace has the best 3D solution with his specialized camera rigs, which incorporate two Sony HDC-1500 cameras. PACE has also created a special 3D production truck with NEP that ESPN used to produce the Ohio State vs. USC football game last September.

"I think he's the only one who really understands all of this, and he's done all of our tests," said Bailey.

ESPN will use the PACE/NEP truck to produce two test broadcasts before ESPN 3D launches in June by showing 25 FIFA 2010 World Cup matches in 3D (the World Cup matches will be supplied in 3D by Host Broadcast Services). One will be a Harlem Globetrotters game on Feb. 25 at ESPN's new Wide World of Sports facility in Orlando, where ESPN will experiment for the first time with using a single truck and crew to produce both 2D and 3D HD broadcasts. ESPN will use the left-eye feed from the PACE cameras to produce the 2D broadcast on ESPN 2 HD, supplemented by some additional 2D cameras, while the full 3D output of the PACE cameras will be shown locally in Orlando.

"We want to test to see if we can do it this way," said Bailey, who added that ESPN will be able to use normal 2D camera positions for the basketball game, which is a "more forgiving event" in 3D than other sports. ESPN, which has already tested 3D golf production in Orlando, also plans to produce at least a few holes of a PGA Tour event in 3D this spring.

ESPN has also considered how it could bring ESPN 3D to its ESPN Zone restaurants, said Bailey. Since it doesn't maintain a closed-circuit TV network with the restaurants, that might require running a fiber feed, something that was feasible in Los Angeles for the Ohio St./USC game but which might be difficult in other locations. He did think that showing ESPN 3D at ESPN Zones would be great exposure for the new channel, which is why ESPN is exploring it.

How 3D will be delivered through existing pay-TV platforms remains an open question, though DirecTV Executive VP Eric Shanks said Jan. 6 that existing DirecTV MPEG-4 set-tops could support DirecTV's planned 3D channels through a software upgrade. Bailey said delivery to cable operators appears to be murkier, as some operators' set-tops will support 3D and others won't.

But he did say that ESPN's approach to transmitting 3D won't require any extra bandwidth compared to normal HD, and could even be sent using MPEG-2 compression in the average 15 megabit-per-second payload of ESPN's existing HD channels. That's because ESPN will be compressing the left-eye and right-eye images in the horizontal plane and "putting one on top of the other," said Bailey, which doesn't require any additional capacity.

While ESPN has experimented with producing 3D commercials using Quantel editing systems, it doesn't plan to show commercials on the new 3D channel. Bailey said that's because ESPN doesn't expect "a great appetite" for 3D commercials in the early days of the channel, and tests have shown that viewers are irritated by seeing the same commercial over and over. Instead, ESPN will probably use a graphic bug to indicate Sony's sponsorship, and during commercial breaks will simply display a countdown timer informing viewers when the live 3D broadcast will resume.

Another reason for not supplying commercials is that ESPN doesn't currently have a 3D master control room in Bristol, Conn., to deliver them, and is unlikely to have one built before June. So if ESPN 3D did need to air a 3D commercial, said Bailey, it would have to play it out from the 3D truck.