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The NFL, live and in 3D

December 4, 2008 |  8:45 pm

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As I headed to Mann's Chinese 6 this afternoon to watch the anemic Oakland Raiders play the underachieving San Diego Chargers, I wondered, can good technology overcome bad entertainment? It's a recurring theme here in Los Angeles, where tech companies continually pitch ways to add digital pizazz to tired forms of programming. In this instance, a potentially tedious edition of Thursday Night Football was made tantalizing -- in theory -- by the chance to see a game for the first time in digital 3D, live on a giant screen. The video production and distribution was by Burbank's 3ality Digital, with Technicolor handling the satellite transmissions to three theaters in Hollywood, Boston and New York and Beverly Hills-based RealD projecting the 3D pictures.

The verdict? The experience wasn't jaw-dropping, but it was noticeably better than a conventional broadcast. The game was drama-free, yet the novelty of 3D made it hard for me to take my eyes off the screen -- at least until the Chargers' lead stretched to 27 points with less than a minute to go before halftime. The effect was subtle at times, but just as compelling as in "U2 3D," 3ality's concert film of the Irish rockers. The most striking thing in both cases was how much more you could see in three dimensions than in two.

3ality Digital, 3D, NFL, RealD

Just as David Modell, chairman of 3ality Digital, warned in an interview before the game, the broadcast was as much a training exercise as a technology showcase. Some shots were so tightly framed, the action quickly squirted out of the frame. Others were so wide, they were hard to distinguish from 2D images. But the field-level and ground-level shots were great. The added depth provided a real sense for what you'd see from the sidelines -- how fast the action moves, how holes open and close, how big the players are. The closer the action moved to the end zones, the more the field opened up. Instead of crowded jumbles of players flattened against the screen, you'd see each of them distinctly, and the space around them. I found myself yearning for the tight, ground-level shots, even if it meant losing sight of the ball at times. That might be a function of the point of view's novelty, but I don't think so. Instead, I think the more realistic the viewpoint, the more interesting the game becomes. A good example: watching San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers from what seemed like the middle of the Raiders secondary, throwing a quick slant pass right at you before you have time to react. Very compelling.

There were no gimmicky shots, no footballs seemingly flying off the screen. But I didn't miss them. And predictably, there were glitches. The most notable were two multi-minute blackouts caused by satellite problems. One was especially inopportune -- the picture evaporated in the middle of a commercial for Technicolor, the company responsible for delivering the signal from the field to the theater. Ooops. On the plus side, the pictures were crisp through RealD's polarized glasses, and easy on the eyes.

In an interview this week, Modell said there were many unanswered questions about how to shoot a football game in 3D. Where should the cameras be? How long should directors stay with each feed? How does the production team use the technology to the greatest advantage? Just as wide-screen HDTV presented games in more detail, Modell said, adding a third dimension can fundamentally change a viewer's perspective: the action moves toward and away from you, not from left to right. "It gives you the impression as if you're standing on the field, and it occurs right in front of your very eyes," he said. "It's going to bring you closer."

That it did, at least in the Raiders-Chargers telecast. But there's no telling whether 3D will draw people into theaters to watch a game, or any other live event.

Michael Lewis, CEO of RealD, offered an "If you build it, they will come" rationale. When RealD launched five years ago, the public was hardly clamoring for 3D movies. Today, Lewis said, the 3D version of a film generates three to four times as much revenue per screen as the 2D version. "When you show it to someone," he said, "then they want it."

Theater owners initially resisted the move to digital because the didn't see a way to make a return on the required investment in new projectors and servers (which cost more than $75,000). Although the major Hollywood studios have agreed to subsidize the deployments, it's not yet clear how multiplexes will be able to translate that spending into increased sales. Movies in 3D offer some hope because theater owners can charge $2 to $3 more per ticket. The next step, Lewis said, is "alternative content" in 3D, such as live sports and concerts. Exhibitors are already experimenting with concerts, boxing and other events in 2D, with mixed results. For RealD and 3ality, the hope is that the immersive power of 3D will draw bigger audiences for that programming. But as Lewis said, "I just don't really know what people will show up for until we do it, so we're just going to try something." The company expects to do more sports in the coming months and to shift from private tests (as in today's game) to public ones.

The main piece still missing from the 3D value chain is home video -- a critical ingredient for sports with a huge TV audience, such as football. 3ality Digital CEO Sandy Climan predicted that 3D for the home will come "much sooner than people think." Many digital projection sets on the market can display a 3D picture (with the help of special glasses, just like in the theater), and Climan said a new generation of flat-panel sets with 3D capabilities is on its way. Viewers will also need a Blu-ray disc player, a computer or a set-top box equipped with special software. One stumbling block for 3D movies and broadcasts in the home is the lack of a standard way to display the images -- RealD's approach competes with several others -- but David Wertheimer, executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center at USC, said industry groups were trying to settle on one. Noting the demand that multiplexes have seen for recent 3D movies, Wertheimer said, "It's pretty clear that there's an opportunity. We've got to all work together to make it happen sooner rather than later."

The image of 3ality Digital Systems CEO Steve Schklair on the sidelines at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego is courtesy of AP Photo/Denis Poroy

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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