Priming the 3D Pipe

With DirecTV and ESPN planning to launch 3D HD channels in June, production vendors are moving quickly to help bring 3D content to the home.

Live sports will be the backbone of the ESPN 3D service and will also be a large part of DirecTV's three 3D channels, which will include content from CBS, NBC, MTV, AEG, HDNet and Fox Sports. In that vein, mobile production vendors and 3D camera specialists are working to bring new stereoscopic 3D production trucks to the field.

Burbank, Calif.-based 3D specialist PACE, which has already developed two 3D mobile units, is building a new 53-foot 3D unit with mobile production giant NEP Supershooters. And New York-based All Mobile Video is constructing its own 3D-capable, 53-foot HD production truck, using 3D camera systems from PACE competitor 3ality Digital. It plans to show the truck, to be built with technology support from Sony, at the NAB convention in Las Vegas in April.

The networks also are continuing to test 3D production in advance of 3D HD's commercial launch. ESPN will produce a Harlem Globetrotters game in 3D on Feb. 25 at its new Wide World of Sports facility in Orlando, where it will experiment for the first time with using a single truck and crew to produce both 2D and 3D HD broadcasts. And CBS is exploring 3D production of some of its marquee sporting events, including the NCAA Men's Final Four basketball championship and The Masters golf tournament, both in April.

“There's a 50/50 shot right now we'll do the Final Four in 3D,” says Ken Aagaard, executive VP of engineering, operation and production services for CBS Sports.

Aagaard says he would likely rely on PACE, which owns a 43-foot, eight-camera unit and last summer teamed with NEP Supershooters to create a 53-foot unit, SS-3D.

A 3D Freight Train

PACE founder and CEO Vince Pace has spent much of the past decade developing 3D camera systems. But even he was surprised at the momentum 3D gained heading into the CES show last month.

“It came up like a freight train traveling 100 miles an hour in the last six or seven months,” Pace says. “I don't think anybody expected that.”

3D technology is advancing rapidly now that the television industry is moving from a few special events a year to widespread production. While there might be 60 3D events in 2010, Pace anticipates as many as 500 3D events being produced in 2011.

“This year, everyone will get an understanding of what the low-hanging fruit is in the 3D community, and start to manage the revenue part of the equation,” he says. “The capture side is being negotiated as we speak, and the revenue side is being figured out this year. Next year, when we've got a defined revenue model, we'll go forward.”

For PACE, that business model is flexible and can include production fees, leasing camera rigs and/or sharing in revenues. What PACE won't do today is sell its Fusion 3D camera rigs, which include two Sony HDC-1500 cameras that capture the left- and right-eye images needed for 3D. Pace expects that major manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic will eventually sell their own 3D camera systems, but that such commoditization of the 3D market is at least 12 to 18 months away.

“We don't want to sell the technology right now, because it's way too young,” Pace says.

For example, Pace expects his camera systems will rely more on automation, reducing the number of production staffers required for a live shoot. The PACE Fusion 3D system has generally used “convergence operators” for each camera who dynamically adjust the depth of field to give the optimal effect for 3D viewers. But according to Pace, software algorithms have improved to the point where most adjustments can now be performed automatically in real time.

Automating 3D production through software processing is the key strategy of PACE's competitor 3ality, which has designed its 3flex camera rigs and image processors to operate within the existing mobile production infrastructure without requiring additional staff compared to 2D. The 3flex system, which will be used by British pay-TV operator BSkyB to produce content for its new 3D service, automatically corrects convergence problems coming from the camera rigs, which like PACE are based on Sony cameras.

The 3flex system can also compress the left- and right-eye HD camera feeds to fit within the existing 1.5 gigabit-per-second (1.5-gig) routing infrastructure of a conventional HD truck. While All Mobile Video is building its new 3D truck with a 3-gig infrastructure to support uncompressed operation, 3ality CEO Sandy Climan says other vendors are looking to retrofit existing 2D trucks with the 3flex system, as Game Creek Video did last year when it helped Fox produce the 2009 BCS Championship Game in 3D.

As Climan puts it: “A lot of truck companies are pursuing the original idea that we had, that these systems can be incorporated into current trucks with very little modification, and a 2D truck becomes 3D-enabled.”