Sport in 3D: what looks best on your 3D TV

The challenges of adding a third dimension to sport on TV

3D sport

The recent FA Cup Final may have been the first to be preceded by a Premier League title decider, but it was also the first time that the Wembley spectacle was broadcast live in 3D.

Viewing figures aren't available, but Sky has signed-up over 70,000 homes to take its 3D channel - and the broadcaster claims that 'around half' of consumers who buy a 3D TV get connected to Sky 3D. That's impressive, but can every sport be successfully filmed with a third dimension?

"A football game is one thing, and boxing is another," says Bryan Burns, vice president, business strategy and development at EPSN, which broadcasts major US sports events in 3D on the ESPN channel in the USA and Australia.

"For camera crews, filming in 3D is about unlearning what they learned for 15-20 years about how to produce 2D, but generally the lower and closer we get, the better the 3D effect.

"I would compare soccer with a college football game in terms of pitch size and spatial relationship," continues Burns. "In our case that can vary between each stadium facility we film in - so one Saturday's 3D broadcast can be better than the next."

Camera positioning

Darren Long, director of operations at Sky Sports, agrees. "There are always going to be sports that are better in 3D, but it comes down to where you can get cameras. In a 2D production of a Premier League match we average 23 cameras whose positions have been built-up over 20 years. With 3D we've put additional cameras into positions where they aren't normally cameras.

"It's all about trial and error, though we know midway and close-up positions on a football pitch work extremely well. It's the angles that show depth and positions, and the behind-the-goal stuff looks really good."

3D camera

CLOSE-UP: Filming live sports in 3D is all about getting lower and closer to the action

Anyone who's watched a Tottenham home game on Sky 3D can't have failed to notice the unusually low position that Sky's cameras film from. "We had great difficulty finding the right camera positions at White Hart Lane - the traditional position was too far up for 3D - so we built a lower platform that could get a good position," says Long. "Some stadiums are never going to be easy. Anfield is tight; it's hard enough filming in 2D let alone in 3D."

Everton fans would retort 'so don't bother!' but all big clubs can be set in their ways as well as often being saddled with an ageing stadium.

"The lower league grounds are less difficult," says Long. "When they were promoted Blackpool had nothing in place so we could go in, advise them on infrastructure, and ask them to think about positions for our 3D cameras."

Other 3D sports

If footie is a challenge to produce in 3D, it's rugby that provides the real 3D thrills. "I love rugby in 3D," says Long. "It's got pauses, lineouts, off the ball action, it's compelling to watch and the grounds are a bit easier to get the extra cameras in."

Long selects darts as another sport that works well, perhaps surprisingly, with cricket being the most taxing because of the distance between camera and wicket.

Long also mentions boxing (one of his first 3D events was filming Ricky Hatton's homecoming in the City of Manchester stadium) and athletics, stating that he's convinced it "should always be done in 3D".

Which brings us on to the prickly matter of the 2012 Olympics, the broadcast rights to which are with terrestrial broadcasters. "We would love to see the Olympics in 3D," says Jon Cass, director of Sky's 3D channel, who has urged the industry to product glasses-free 3D TVs.

"The UK is at the cutting edge of 3D and it would be a crime if the Olympic Games wasn't in 3D, but the decision isn't in our gift." For now the BBC's 3D ambitions appear to be limited to experiments (it recently used 3D cameras to film the distinctly un-sporty Strictly Come Dancing) and possibly video on demand content on the BBC iPlayer rather than a linear channel, though the Wimbledon finals will be broadcast in 3D.

Sky Sports may have the most experienced 3D team around, but it's not the only broadcaster involved in 3D. Virgin Media, which has until now had only limited video on demand content in 3D, recently announced its intention to show the French Open tennis in 3D via a new Eurosport 3D service on channel 523.

Eurosport filmed last year's event in 3D, too, with Panasonic providing 3D monitors, cameras and mixers, and that continues in 2011.

"Tennis is an interesting one," says Steve Lucas, consumer AV & imaging product specialist at Panasonic. "Because you can get the cameras relatively close to the players, generally they tend to shoot from the baseline end. At Roland Garros last year there were some great 3D shots from the baseline ends.

"Golf also works well by introducing a sense of gradient in the course," he continues. "At the final putting shot at the Open in Augusta you could see the undulations of the hole, something that's impossible to pick out in conventional 2D - it just looks like a flat shot to the hole."


In the USA and Australia the driver behind 3D sport is Disney-owned ESPN, which already has Premier League broadcast rights so could challenge Sky's early dominance in the UK 3D broadcast market.

It's ESPN 3D channel, which is available to 65 million in the US and started broadcasting 24 hours a day during February, has in its 3D CV some 25 matches at the World Cup, NBA Playoffs and Finals, college basketball, the X Games and the Masters.

Just like Sky, it's just headed north of a centenary of 3D live 'telecasts'.

Virtually all of them are fed live on an ESPN 3D channel on the FoxTel network in Australia, too. "We didn't have rights to in show The Masters in the US, but everything else - all 104 events so far - have been fed live," says Sean Riley, senior coordinating producer at ESPN.

With a groundswell of live 3D sports events and creeping experience in film crews and production teams, could we start to see other third party 3D channels - such as those from Eurosport and ESPN - appear on the Sky EPG?

The answer is typical of both Sky's enthusiasm for 3D, and the general 'suck it and see' approach of everyone working in these embryonic days of 3D broadcasting. "Would we support other channel brands who want to launch in 3D on Sky?

Absolutely," says Cass. "We're committed to growing the market and keeping the UK at the forefront of 3D."

Whether 3D breaks into a sprint at London 2012, however, remains to be seen.

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