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NBA Adds a New Dimension

The National Basketball Association (NBA) wants to give every fan a courtside seat.

To that end, the league is experimenting with a 3D, high-definition imaging system that it will demonstrate to advertisers, broadcast partners and other VIPs at a private viewing party during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas this weekend.

The league hopes the technology will soon be widely adopted in large-format viewing environments, such as movie theaters and sports arenas, and eventually make its way to consumers’ HDTV sets. For now, the league believes it’s ideal for stadium viewing of NBA playoff games in cities with teams on the road.

The 3D HD Fusion camera systems the NBA will use are provided by PACE, a private Burbank, Calif.-based company founded in 2000 by cinematographer Vincent Pace and backed by film director James Cameron. The cameras, worth $1.5 million-$2 million each and leased to the NBA, have been used by Cameron for several large-format (IMAX) films, as well as for theatrical release Journey to the Center of the Earth, which should hit theaters in early 2008.

The 3D technology, first tested in a sports application during an NBA playoff game last April, will be on display twice this weekend, with viewing parties of 550-600 guests each for NBA All-Star Saturday Night (Feb. 17) and the All-Star Game (Feb. 18).

The PACE 3D system, which requires viewers to wear special glasses, creates its depth-of-field perspective by using two HD cameras working together as a single unit to provide one visual experience. They are integrated onto a single sled platform and operated, tracked and controlled as one. The two cameras track depth in relation to a subject to simulate what the human eye does, a process Pace calls “dynamic convergence.” Projecting the two camera feeds simultaneously on one screen produces a 3D experience.

“It’s ocular convergence and a layering of images,” explains Steve Hellmuth, senior VP of operations and technology for NBA Entertainment. “It changes the ocular experience by having the cameras change position on the sled, and the viewer is drawn into a unique experience that you’re not even aware of having.”

In advance demonstrations of the system to journalists in New York late last month, the PACE technology created a realistic 3D viewing experience most of the time, although the image blurred when the camera panned too quickly.

The most striking 3D effect came when stationary objects, such as the stands or baskets, were viewed from a high camera position or a replay of action near the basket was shown from a low camera angle, such as a slow-motion shot of Lakers star Kobe Bryant making a jump shot.

The NBA will use five of the 3D HD Fusion camera systems to capture the action in Las Vegas’ Thomas and Mack Center (TNT will use 28 regular cameras for its conventional HD broadcast), instead of the two used in the trial last April. Pace says that should solve the blurring problem by limiting the range of camera panning required. The NBA is working with equipment-rental firm Bexel to build a dedicated mobile 3D unit.

Most movie theaters capable of digital cinema projection can also display 3D content, says Pace. There were only 50 such theaters in the U.S. in 2001, but there are 500 today, and he expects the number to climb to 800 soon.

Also, 25 digital cinema theaters are capable of displaying live HD content via satellite broadcast.

Says Hellmuth, “It’s a chance for the whole NBA community to see a unique programming experience.”

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