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CES: Is 3-D Video Ready for Prime Time?

Posted by: Kenji Hall on January 9, 2009

It was billed as one of the highlights of the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual geekfest held in Las Vegas. On Jan. 8, Sony teamed up with Fox Sports and a handful of other technology companies to offer a rare 3-D screening of the BCS national college football championship game between the Oklahoma Sooners and Florida Gators. The event was beamed live via satellite to theaters across the U.S., including one (an invitation-only affair) at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas where high-tech bigwigs munched on free hot dogs and ice-cream sandwiches and quaffed Budweiser. It was supposed to whet consumers’ appetite for 3-D TV in the home, which all of the major electronics brands are rushing to develop in the next couple of years.

But not everything went as planned. Minutes into the first quarter, there were technical problems: The stereo sound either failed or flared in a deafening burst of sound and the video was plagued by psychedelic swirls or pixels of color or nausea-inducing double images. Behind me, one man wondered aloud what was going wrong and then said: “We need to find a sports bar to watch the rest of the game.” Another seated beside me noted that a similar NFL 3-D event last month in Los Angeles had fewer technical issues.

At times, the event did live up to the hype, offering a glimpse (through special polarized glasses) of the future of 3-D video. That was especially true during stoppages in play or slow-motion replays when the players in the picture looked as if they were standing on the other side of a window. But those moments were more the exception than the rule. During fast-action scenes, the players were a blur of motion. And because the 3-D cameras were mostly near field-level to take advantage of the immersive effect of the technology, it was hard to figure out who had the football. Several times, the camera operators (who were working independently from the main Fox Sports cameras) couldn’t even find the ball, and missed a key catch or tackle.

One Sony executive pointed out at halftime that all the traditional techniques for covering sports—cutting between cameras, up-close action—might not be ideal for 3-D, and suggested that a stationary camera at an NBA game—mid-court, much like a courtside seat—might be a better use of the technology. Nicholas Routhier, president and CEO of Sensio, which was in charge of one step in delivering the video data to theaters, later said the problems appear to be due to a data overload in the equipment at the Paris Hotel, and that most of the 100-plus venues showing the game had no problems. (Three theaters had a problem with left-eye-right-eye reversal, which causes objects that are supposed to be in focus to be out of focus, and vice versa.)

Earlier in the day, Sony had run through some impressive 3-D clips at the CES keynote and electronics rival Panasonic had shown off its own high-definition 3-D imaging system based on the next-generation Blu-ray DVD format inside a mini-theater at its convention booth. Obviously, these technologies have a ways to go before being ready for prime time.

Would the problems discourage viewers who had come to see the college football game with high expectations? Buzz Hays, senior video effects producer at Sony Pictures Imageworks, didn’t think so. “I think it’s a great initial step for the public to see this kind of technology at work,” he said. “It’s tough when you’re working with satellite companies and broadcasters around the nation.” He went on: “There hasn’t been enough experimentation and there aren’t enough people with a lot of experience doing this. It’s still a trial-and-error thing…Satellite is expensive so we only had a couple of hours to test the system before the show. Normally, with feature filmmaking you have a controlled environment. Here it’s not like that.”

Reader Comments

Mark McKenna

January 14, 2009 2:07 PM

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