Sports Entertainment Summit: Making the 4K Ecosystem and Glassless 3D A Reality

Anyone on hand for the NAB Show in April can attest to the indomitable buzz of 4K and glassless 3D technology in the sports production industry today. With the exception of perhaps “the second-screen”, no term was heard more often than 4K. And while 3D may not be the belle of the ball that it was at NAB 2010, the potential for high-quality glassless displays has caused a renaissance of sorts.

At the Sports Entertainment Summit, co-produced by SVG and Variety last week in Los Angeles, a panel of those on the front lines of the 4K and 3D revolutions broke down just how far away these technologies are from becoming a mainstream reality.

Bringing the 4K Sports Dream to Life
4K technology offers not only the potential to deliver a live sports at nine times the spatial resolution of 720p, but also to enhance the 720p HD experience through stitching and extracting techniques. Regardless of the future potential and excitement that 4K presents today, one thing is for sure; according to Sony Electronics Director of Marketing Rob Willox: there are more questions than answers.

(L-R) Moderator Ken Kerschbaumer, Excutive Director, Editorial, Sports Video Group, Rob Willox, Director of Marketing, Sony, and Ted Kenney, Director of Production, 3ality Technia speak on stage during the Beyond HD: Glasses-Free 3D, 4K, and The Next-Generation of Sports Technology panel.

“The amount of data needed to move from A to B [capture to transmission into the home] is truly amazing,” Willox said during the SES session. “It is along the lines of 50 New York City phone books worth of data every second. What we need to do is take that raw data and figure out the compression [scheme] that makes it still spectacular but feasible to work within an overall infrastructure.”

While Sony and others have already debuted 4K cameras and projectors, the remaining stages in a true 4K ecosystem remain years away. However, the potential to increase the quality of an HD telecast using 4K cameras may be coming sooner than many realize.

At NAB, Sony demonstrated a technology that combined two 4K cameras to stitch together an 8K by 2K image (equivalent to 18 720p cameras within the array). As a result, the enormous frame was able to capture that entire playing surface, allowing for in-depth high-resolution analysis (think high-resolution looks at different angles of a NASCAR car crash or the fight-inciting incident that occurs away from the action in an NHL game).

“If you’re going from 720p to 4K, that is nine times the spatial resolution, so you could conceivably get nine times the amount of enlargement and still have a great 720p picture,” said Willox. “We have experimented with high-angle shots where we can still very clearly see labels on running shoes, for example. If you want [a] new analysis tool, the more resolution the better, and that’s where 4K becomes really interesting.”

The Long, Hard 3D Struggle
In early 2010, few things were hotter than 3D. Whether it was films, sports, or concerts, 3D seemed to be the wave of the future ready to take the world by storm. But two years later, this wave of 3D success has yet to reach the shore. And many point the blame at three factors: the manufacturers’ rush to market with 3D sets, a lack of sheer 3D content, and simple bad press.

Manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic saw their overall HD television set sales dwindling as the hype of the DTV transition began to dwindle. In an effort to fill this quickly widening gap in sales, many targeted 3D as the next market push. As Willox put it, “not a lot of airlines launch an aircraft while they’re still manufacturing.”

Ted Kenney, director of production, 3ality Technica

Then, there was the media; a large chunk of which seemed focused more on the dangerous health risks of 3D rather than a potentially valuable new entertainment format. It was “the story that people love to hate,” as Willox said.

And finally, there was a dearth of content for the few early adopters of 3D TV. Much of that content was rushed and hastily produced in an effort to fill programming blocks.

“Then, there was the bad 3D,” said Ted Kenney, director of production, 3ality Technica. “When we started out there were only 3ality and Pace [now Cameron-Pace Group]. And we were expensive, but we did it right. We trained people right and took the time. Then suddenly everyone had a 3D producer card.”

A Future That Remains Bright
But is 3D’s day in the sun officially over? Most agree that it is far too early to tell.

In terms of sports, ESPN 3D is still alive and well, producing hundreds of events per year. Several 3D studio films have delivered big numbers at the box office (most recently, Sony’s The Amazing Spider Man). And most importantly, the quality has never been better and the cost has never been lower, as 3D equipment manufacturers and producers develop new cutting-edge technology and workflows that improve both the final product and the bottom line.

“I think there are a lot of reasons why we failed so far [in 3D development], but we haven’t failed entirely,” said Kenney. “It is still very much a growth market and it will get to point where it really takes off. There are a lot of peaks and valleys. But has it failed? No. Look at the manufactures. The TVs are still being made, 80% of smartphones in the next four years will be 3D capable.”

Glassless Remains the Key for 3D
For most, the key to 3D TV’s future remains glassless displays that allow a family to watch together without being constricted by individual sets of glasses. At NAB, Dolby, Sony, Stergen, and others demoed impressive new glassless 3D sets that could relight the fire under the 3D TV buzz.

“Glassless 3D TV is coming,” said Kenney. “The images we saw at NAB were amazing, but there is a processing power behind that that is very expensive. But price will come down over time and it will get there. That is really going to drive the market.”

Also driving the market will be a new generation of 3D handhelds and tablets that avoid the issues of specific viewing angles and wide perspectives that face wide-screen televisions.

“I think the point that everyone missing is 3D on phones and iPads,” said Kenney. “Nielsen says that people 12 to 24 have been watching more phones and iPads than on TV for the past two years. Everything took off so quickly [at the beginning of the 3D movement]. Now, I think there is going to be a steady growth back. When iPad comes out in 3D, it’s going to be like God spoke.”