SportsTechLA: To Balance Flexibility With Efficiency, SMPTE Is Cautious on 3D Standards

Some of the biggest questions yet to be answered about 3D sports production relate to standardization: who sets the standards, what will they be, and will they be followed? At SVG’s SportsTechLA event, held Jan. 19 at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, answers began to form for some of those questions. Peter Symes, director of standards and engineering for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) took the podium to explain that creating standards for 3D production is no easy task — but, compared with the production questions, standards may be the simple side of the equation.

“What makes me nervous here, hearing about how much things being wrong can upset the 3D experience, I’m concerned that we need to pay a great deal of attention to not compromising that 3D experience by putting 3D and 2D productions together,” he said. “For sports, the viewpoints need to be different. Those are challenging issues on the production side, so maybe standards really are the easy part.”

Still, the “easy” part is no cakewalk.

When it comes to the production of 3D content, SMPTE’s role is fairly straightforward: making sure that the tools are in place to create the content.

“Creative technologists will come up with many and varied ways of getting to a 3D production,” Symes said. “We’ve got to come up with an overall system that supports multiple delivery channels, coding technologies, and display technologies. SMPTE’s role is very simple: we’re charged with creating a single deliverable format that will provide a target for content producers and a known starting point for people who are moving into delivery and display technologies.”

The 3D home master, as Symes referred to that set of standards, is scheduled to be completed in mid 2010, just in time for the rollout of 3D channels from ESPN and DirecTV.

When it comes to live sports production, as opposed to post-produced packages or film content, he explained, there is a different thought process, and that requires different standards for distribution.

“There are some very obvious questions to ask. Do we associate a format with this? Do we create an MXF format to support the home master, or should there be multiple options? Do we need to specify as part of this an electrical interface? Do we have to define more than one? Do we need depth representation? There has to be some flexibility here.”

Symes went on to explain that, within SMPTE, the challenge is to find the right balance in devising standards that are not too restrictive to allow for creativity or too open to allow for true standardization.

“If we’re too restrictive, it makes it simple to use but doesn’t provide people everything they need,” he said. “Or we could go the way of file formats, make it open to everything, and then it’s very difficult to find two versions of something where people have supposedly followed the same standard. There has to be enough flexibility that it’s practical but still include enough information for all of the different delivery mechanisms to be able to use it efficiently with minimum loss of quality.”

Perhaps the most important point Symes made was that finding standards for a nascent technology like 3D is difficult. Making assumptions about how something will obviously work is dangerous when new techniques are being fashioned daily. “We’re going to have to be cautious.”