Having attended some live World Cup games at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban last month, I was intrigued to see several of the eight FIFA 3D cameras and equipment placed at various points around the pitch. These first-generation 3D cameras appear to be much larger and wider than the normal HD cameras, most notably to house the stereoscopic 3D lenses. Most interestingly, the 3D cameras were placed at very unusual locations, typically not where you’d expect them to be, so it got me wondering what it might be like to actually watch a full 90-minute game in 3D. It was an easy decision therefore to take the opportunity over the weekend to view a live 3D broadcast of the Germany vs Argentina World Cup Quarter Final at a Ster Kinekor movie theatre in Pretoria.
Here are some first-hand observations of that experience and some thoughts on where the future of Live 3D Sport Broadcasts could be headed:
The main 3D camera angle is lower and closer to the field
The football-viewing public expect to watch a game from a certain camera-angle height from the midpoint of the field, as we have become mentally conditioned to this angle over many years of 2D football broadcasts. 3D changes that. The first thing you notice in the 3D broadcast is that the camera angle is MUCH lower to the field of play. It’s as if you are sitting just above the tunnel, right behind the player dugouts. This immediately brings you closer to the action, making the whole experience much more intimate.
The game moves from a distanced viewing experience to an immersive, participative experience
I could count six pitch-level 3D camera angles: two either side of the goals on both ends, and one each between the halfway line and each corner flag. I assume the other two cameras are in the grandstand. The ground-level angles were frequently used, the net effect of this is being that it places you straight into the action, as if you are a player – as if you are actually running on the field yourself. The realism is phenomenal, there were times that you felt it possible to actually reach out and touch the players, or even worse – touch the ball (although this seems acceptable given the last-minute antics of the Uruguay vs Ghana game). In 3D, you can even notice the undulations of the pitch – for example, when watching a long pass between two players at ground level, you notice the rise and fall of the ball as it disappears over the grass – an incredible sense of immersion. In one moment when the field-level camera was in use, Diego Maradona rushed into the Argentinean technical area and it stood right in front of the 3D camera; it felt natural for the entire viewing audience to bend their heads around him to follow the action on the pitch behind.
It feels like you’ve watched a different game than to the one on normal TV
Since the 3D broadcast uses different cameras positioned at different locations to that of the 2D broadcast, you come away from the experience with the feeling that you’ve actually been AT the stadium. It’s as if you’ve almost watched a different game – like when you watch a game live at a stadium and then see the TV highlights, it always the ‘live moments’ that you remember better.
Overlay Screen Graphics are used with striking 3D effects
In 3D, the standard graphic overlays suddenly come to life, but without being intrusive. The graphics for the team line-ups, substitutions and the score bug in the top left of the screen hover neatly in front of you in crystal clear clarity, and coupled with the long-distance shots of the stadium and Table Mountain in the background, provide a striking sense of depth to the experience.
However, there were one or two issues that still highlighted that this is a technology in progress. Not showstoppers, but improvements are needed nonetheless:
Fast camera-panning doesn’t look good in 3D
Fast-paced action, especially when the main 3D camera view is required to do a fast cross-field pan to follow the ball, creates a distracting jerkiness and stuttering to the visuals. As soon as the camera stops moving however, the jagged edges disappear and the visuals settle again. Somewhat off-putting at first, however not enough to detract from the overall experience. But frame-rate and stability are definitely an area still to be refined it would seem. In fact, some of the most enjoyable 3D moments were the set-pieces and free-kicks, when a wide-angle static 3D shot was used to capture the action in its entirety, with very minimal zoom or frame cuts, giving the viewer full control in deciding what part of the action to focus on. These moments, when practically 21 out of 22 players were in the same frame at the same time, made for great 3D sport.
Audio commentary feed is not the same as 2D
Perhaps just a minor point, but the commentary for the 3D game is not the same as for the 2D game. Although the commentator was very competent, it was immediately clear that he was only commentating for the 3D audience when he made mention of this fact several times during the game. Not sure exactly what the reason is for having a separate 3D commentator – could have had something to do with the rights to re-broadcast the live feed, however this was not a significant problem during the game.
Visuals are slightly darker than normal 2D
Probably as a result of the polarised glasses needed to experience present-day 3D video, the net effect of watching the live game in 3D is a somewhat darker image than normal. This is noticeable at first, but your eyes quickly adjust and you are soon pulled into the action. Perhaps the 3D live feed brightness level could be boosted slightly further before the broadcast goes out.
So having experienced a full 90-minutes of football in 3D, there is certainly a massive potential in this technology for future live sport broadcasts. Football is a superb match for 3D technology, and I can imagine that so too could tennis, golf, rugby, motor-racing and cricket all provide a sense of absolute immersion into the sport.
But what might 3D sport look like in the future? Here are some ideas:
Viewer-selected 3D Cams – as of today there are apparently eight 3D cameras used per FIFA match, which already provide an outstanding immersive experience. However, the nature of a 3D broadcast means that only 1 of the 8 camera feeds are in use at any one time. With network and broadcast capacity increasing all the time, it won’t be long before some innovative hybrid TV/telecoms operators start offering choices of ‘camera channels’ to their subscribers, giving them full control of what part of the game they want to focus on.
Beyond that, supplementary 3D feeds from the game can be offloaded to an IPTV network and delivered in parallel to peripheral devices such as high-res smartphones and iPads, providing a fully augmented 3D viewing experience. Subscribers will have fully individualised live sport experiences unique to their own viewing preferences.
Meshed 3D – it won’t be long before 3D camera costs fall and more cameras can be deployed around a stadium. Imagine twenty 3D cameras placed around the field. Or even fifty. Taking the viewer-selected 3D cams a step further – technology already exists today to mesh multiple camera feeds in real-time into a ‘mash-up’ of the sporting event, which then allows a virtual camera to fly, pan and zoom around the mashed-up stream in multiple possible angles and dimensions. Players are simply ‘clicked on’ and the virtual camera automatically zooms to follow that player around the field.
Extrapolate this level of control to the telecoms world and subscribers will soon be able to use their touch-screen devices to personalise their own meshed 3D live sport experiences.
Player POV 3D Cams – imagine when 3D cameras become so small that they are integrated into the front-facing belts or shorts of key players on the field? Imagine a Messi-cam, or a Ronaldo-cam, or a POV goalkeeper cam with the German strikers running towards your goal at high-speed… then add these POV 3D cam views into the Meshed 3D experience and live sport will never be the same again.
With only 4 games left of the 2010 World Cup, it effectively means only 4 chances still available to experience a LIVE 3D sporting experience of this magnitude – I can highly recommend taking the opportunity to go and see the future of sport broadcasting.