Comcast Dives Into 3D Transmission With Masters Coverage

Live 3D sports are making their way into homes faster than many had anticipated, and, when it comes to transmission, Comcast is steering the ship. Augusta National has announced that two hours of live 3D coverage will be produced daily from this year’s Masters Tournament, from Wednesday April 7 through Sunday April 11. Although Augusta will produce the event, Comcast is providing the distribution channels necessary to deliver the 3D images free to households nationwide, through both 3D-capable televisions and computers.

“Comcast has been offering 3D for a few years now,” says Mark Francisco, technology fellow for Comcast. “We’ve offered 3D movies on-demand using anaglyph technology, and people like it. This is our first foray into the next generation of 3D, and it’s in line with our history of innovation. The turning point was when we tried it at Augusta and we saw how good it looked.”

A Channel Dedicated to Augusta
To bring the 3D content from Augusta to the home, Comcast will launch a dedicated 1080i channel in advance of the tournament. As the TV provider for the Augusta National campus, Comcast already has a team on the ground in Georgia, making the transmission and distribution process a bit simpler. The Augusta production team will hand the signal off to the Comcast team on-site, which will format it for Internet and cable distribution using the DOCSIS 3 fiber network.

“We take the signal from Augusta across our national backbone to the Comcast Media Center in Denver, where we do national distribution,” Francisco says. “That’s where we put it on the cable plan so you can tune into a high-definition channel, and, if you have a 3D TV and the glasses on, off you go with the Masters in 3D.”

Comcast is running 50 Mbps downlink speeds out of Augusta National, though DOCSIS 3 has multiple speed tiers. Because the left- and right-eye signals have to travel together to make 3D work, the signal is significantly larger than a traditional HD signal.

“The 3D signal has a lot of information in it because you’re putting both eyes in there, but it works really well on our DOCSIS 3 network, our highest high-speed data network,” Francisco says. “We didn’t have to add anything to our backbone; what we did was put the appropriate formatting equipment on the golf course so that the left eye and right eye can be transmitted on a single channel.”

Comcast has a half-rack of equipment on the golf course itself, with additional equipment in its Media Center, where the heavy lifting of distribution is done for both television and Web.

“It’s really no different than we do for a 2D production,” Francisco points out, “other than it’s a lot more information. Because 3D carries more information than 2D, we are using the highest bitrates available on our video channels.  We do trade off some resolution for depth, but the end result is still an HD 3D experience.”

The content will be available online through a partnership with technology partner IBM. With a solid Internet connection, a 3D media player, 3D monitor, and 3D glasses, fans can watch the same 3D feed on the Masters.com Website.

Side-by-Side, for Today
Comcast’s current plan is to multiplex the frames together side-by-side, as opposed to over-under, but that decision changes frequently.

“We’ve still got a couple of weeks, and engineers like to polish things until the last minute, so that could change yet,” Francisco says. “But it looks great in 1080i side-by-side. I have some test footage that we shot two weeks ago that we’re running across our backbone in that exact format, and it looks great. You can see all the contours on the fairways, the trajectory of the balls as they’re hit, and, when people take bunker shots, you can see the sand coming at you.”

The 3D coverage will focus on the second nine holes of the course to capture the most compelling moments, and 3D-specific camera angles will maximize the 3D experience.

What’s Next?
As yet, no launch date has been set to flip the switch on the Comcast 3D channel that will house the Masters, and what happens to the channel after the tournament is over remains to be seen.

Says Francisco, “We’re figuring out if this is the start of something more.”