Posted: May 01, 2010

Small biz: 3D sports on TV more than a remote possibility

Mike Taylor

High-definition TV owners, don't get too comfortable on your couches.

That HD TV you just bought could be headed for obsolescence. At least that's what I was left considering after watching the first round of the Masters golf tournament in 3D. And that's what early 3D adopters like Samsung and Panasonic want you to ponder.

Comcast hosted a 3D "viewing reception" of the Masters' first round in the clubhouse of Cherry Hills Country Club last month, the first national broadcast of a major sporting event in 3D. It had to be the only venue around where the picture itself and not Tiger Woods, or even golf, really, was the main topic of conversation.

"We think it's the future of television," said Scott Binder, senior vice president of Comcast's Mile High Region. "It's the first time we've had this next-generation ‘Avatar'-like experience in a sporting event."

I hadn't seen "Avatar," but I got an idea of the mesmerizing effect of 3D a short time later when a cheer erupted around the 55-inch Samsung, one of two TVs set up in front of couches to show off the 3D experience.

"A hole in one!" exclaimed one man in 3D specs. Not quite. Turns out the golfer had merely holed out from afar, but the viewer had been so captivated by the 3D picture that he hadn't paid close attention to the shot itself or the commentary. He wasn't alone.

"Who hit it?" I asked.

"I don't know," one man wearing 3D specs and sitting on the couch said. "I was looking at the course."

"We've been getting that reaction all day," Binder said. "I think a lot of people walked into the room thinking about Tiger (Woods), and they're walking out thinking about 3D."

While 3D has made inroads in movies both at the theater and in homes, making it happen in sports is a different challenge altogether. Two "stereoscopic" cameras were required to shoot the action simultaneously in Augusta, Ga.; the signal was then transported to Comcast's media center in Denver and distributed nationally.

Being the first one on your block with 3D TV won't come cheap, but it will stimulate the economy. A 50-inch or 55-inch TV will set you back about $3,000, according to the Comcast people; one big-screen 3D model I tried out at Best Buy the next day was a little more than $2,900 on sale. Then there's the battery-powered 3D glasses. While some of the TVs come with a pair of specs, additional glasses go for about $150 a pair.

These aren't your father's 3D specs that were briefly the rage - and more of a gimmick than anything - for 3D movies in the 1950s like "House of Wax" starring Vincent Price. Those glasses relied on red and blue lenses to give an illusion of depth.

Movies like "Avatar" rely on "passive" technology, with one lens polarized horizontally, the other vertically, to give a sense of depth. Now comes "active" lens technology.

Seeing it applied to golf, I wanted to know how long before 3D becomes available for football. So did former Denver Broncos quarterback Brian Griese, who is now broadcasting college football for ESPN and was on hand for Comcast's demonstration.

"I think initially content will toggle back and forth (between HD and 3D)," Binder said. "So there may be a 3D feed, but maybe only 20 to 30 percent of the content at first will be in 3D. Then it will evolve as there gets to be more cameras out there for production."

Griese had one other question for Binder, one heard a lot during that opening day of the Masters: "Is there a way to eliminate the glasses?"

Probably not for a while. The technology exists, but in trials, glasses-free viewing gave people headaches.

Either that, or the thought of buying another TV did it.

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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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