World Cup coverage in 3D helping usher in new era of TV

Watching World Cup soccer on a 50-inch screen at the Best Buy in Arundel Mills last week, Brian Sturm was gazing through clunky-looking glasses at what could be the next big thing in popular entertainment.

Sturm, a 34-year-old financial analyst who considers himself a "huge" sports fan, was brought into the store by the games and the offhand remark of a friend who said the 3D display at Best Buy would show him sports in a way he never had seen before.

"The picture is amazing, and I'm not a 3D kind of guy," Sturm said. "It's better than being there. It feels like the players are coming though the screen at you. It blows HD away. I'll tell you what, I wasn't thinking about it before, but when I have the money, sure, I'll be getting 3D."

Sturm's words are exactly what the media industry wants to hear. With fierce, bodies-in-motion competition on the field and crazed, colorful fans in the stands, the heavily viewed games are proving to be a winning way to lead consumers into a new and more expensive frontier of viewing.

"The World Cup is one of those events that everyone is watching some portion of, even if you're not normally a giant soccer fan, just to find out what the buzzing is about," says Kelly Gould, director of broadcast services at GKV, a Baltimore communications firm. "Everybody's paying attention on one level or another, so it's a great way to captivate people with new technology around this big sporting event. In that sense, the World Cup is definitely creating a new awareness of 3D."

Awareness is one thing. But given the fact that many Americans have yet to even come to terms with HDTV (high-definition television), analysts also say that getting buyers to go from wanting a 3D TV to actually purchasing one any time soon could be a tall order — especially in these uncertain economic times.

"I think 3D is sort of in that high-def position of several years ago where its applications are coming out, and we're seeing sneak peeks of how great it's going to be. But I think it's just not there yet for everybody," Gould says.

Still, with hit films like "Avatar" introducing millions of filmgoers to the lush experience offered by the latest 3D technology, and such companies as Disney, Comcast and ESPN promising consumers that same viewing pleasure in their homes, it is safe to say everyone is going to be hearing more about the new technology in coming weeks and months. And that goes for video game enthusiasts, too — as that $45-billion-a-year realm of the media industry also embraces 3D courtesy of Sony and Nintendo.

ESPN's launch on June 11 of its ESPN 3D network in conjunction with its coverage of the World Cup games is perhaps the primary driving force behind the heightened awareness. And the buzz already generated suggests that 3D could find its way into the nation's home-entertainment grid much faster than HDTV did.

"Between now and Christmas, I think you will begin to see a virtual avalanche of commercials on television from the consumer electronics companies trying to sell you a 3D TV," says Bryan Burns, vice president for strategic planning at the sports media company ESPN. "And as that goes farther into the mainstream, consumers will become more aware of 3D. And between those commercials and the events like World Cup that we're doing, the awareness will continue to grow. ESPN is a lot of things, but one of the things it does is reach 100 million people a week across all our media."

Comparing the current 3D rollout to the one started seven years ago for HD, Burns says: "When we started with ESPN HD in 2003, we had a smattering of good customers and distributors, but they were small ones."

But with 3D, it's a vastly different story.

"This time, we went into our launch day with Comcast, DirecTV and AT&T;," Bryan says, explaining that they were instantly available in 45 million homes via the subscriber lists of those media conglomerates. "What that partnership means is that if you live in the Comcast area and you call them up, you get ESPN 3D. And we didn't have that with HD."

The partnership of ESPN and Comcast to show 25 World Cup games in 3D also demonstrates the way the media world has changed in the past decade, with the biggest companies getting even bigger and more vertically integrated. ESPN is Disney, and Comcast is likely to soon be Comcast- NBC-Universal. Such entertainment companies can control the flow of programming from the studios in Hollywood that provide the best feature film and TV products available — down to the very piece of wire from the utility pole in the alley that brings these productions into homes.

As Fred Graffam, a senior regional vice president for Comcast, explains it, subscribers with an HD receiver box can be upgraded to 3D service by calling the company. There is no added subscription charge and no need for a special receiver-converter, only the 3D TV and glasses.

Satellite subscribers can get the same kind of instant access to ESPN 3D through the sports channel's arrangement with DirecTV.

The new generation of 3D is not the same format as the red and blue paper glasses of drive-in movie days. Whereas that technology was primarily based on the manipulation of color, the new 3D uses polarized and electronically controlled glasses synced up with the TV screen to create the illusion of depth.

Prices for the new-technology 3D TVs range from about $1,700 to $7,500, while the glasses cost between $100 and $175.

"And as we saw with HD television, as the demand rises, the prices will go down [for glasses and TV sets]," says Sean Yackulak, a regional senior director of engineering for Comcast.

The best gauge of current demand comes from the Consumer Electronics Association, which estimates that 1 million 3D TVs will be shipped to retailers in 2010, with the number growing to 4 million next year.

In April, ESPN and Comcast teamed up to offer coverage of the Masters Golf Tournament in 3D, but it was a low-key affair compared to the World Cup. Burns emphasizes that while his producers are on scene at the World Cup games, they are not controlling the cameras. That is being done by FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association). ESPN's first 3D telecast that it directs and produces will be July 12 with the Home Run Derby competition at Major League Baseball's All-Star Game.

Burns says a meeting convened by the Consumer Electronics Association in Los Angeles two weeks ago brought together set manufacturers, retailers and programmers in hopes of accelerating that timetable.

"There were 75 of us in a room, and we all talked for a day about how we can take this to the public," Burns says. "How do we use all the efforts that we have to make sure that everyone has a chance to see 3D someplace to hopefully motivate them to walk into a … [store] and buy a Sony set? And then, how do we get those people hooked up to Comcast, DirecTV or AT&T;? How do we create the entire food chain easily for that sports fan who says, 'I gotta have this?' There's a lot of work to be done on that front right now, but it's starting to happen."

In coming weeks, there will be more animated movies, more sports TV and more new video games — all in 3D. On the TV programming front, Comcast will offer Maryland viewers the X Games and NASCAR's Coke 400 in July.

That's programming sure to appeal to potential buyers like Sturm, the sports-loving financial analyst who went to Arundel Mills to watch World Cup soccer at Best Buy. As much as Sturm is already sold on 3D as "the next phase," though, he says he doesn't have the "disposable income" right now to buy.

Last week at the Best Buy in Timonium, Frank Dalton, who was visiting Baltimore from his home in Guatemala, sat in a big comfortable chair watching World Cup soccer through 3D glasses and smiling.

When he took off the glasses and got up to leave, he was asked what he thought of the experience.

"I'm very impressed," he said, praising the "depth" of vision.

Would he consider buying a 3D television in the next year?

"I already have," he said. "I'm having it shipped home. I just wanted to see it through the glasses they have here."

Another look at 3D

I am not a technophile when it comes to TV. I still have my pre-HD Sony Trinitrons and am perfectly happy with them for home viewing.

But after watching World Cup soccer at Comcast headquarters and Best Buy, I have to admit it is a far more intense visual experience than the one I have known for the past 30 years with TV. The most striking element involves depth. When the cameras scan the stands at the games — zeroing in on all those raucous fans — I had the sense that I was standing among the crowd and could see six rows deep into it.

As for the play itself, the overhead shots were not that impressive, but the field-level points of view were spectacular in the sense of energy and movement that they conveyed. It really does feel as if players are coming at you, and the urge to duck is real.

Outside of animation, I suspect sports is the best arena for 3D. I can't wait to see what happens with the NFL when ESPN gets access to that realm.

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