Football in 3D, coming to a theater near you

December 5, 2008

The first-ever 3D broadcast of an NFL game was rushed into movie theaters in three U.S. cities last night, kicking off what many hope could be a new way of generating revenue for theater operators.

We attended the event in Los Angeles, where a throng of football fans, reporters and Hollywood executives donned black plastic 3D glasses and crammed into a stadium-style theater for kickoff between the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers.

In an interview the day before the game, Michael Lewis, chief executive and co-founder of 3D system provider RealD 3D, said of the experience: “You feel like you are really on the field in the middle of the action,” and called the event “the dawn of live events at your local theater.”

For us, sitting in the theater, the 3D technology really did make it feel like we were right on the field at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. Most of the camera angles were field-level, which even in conventional “2D” broadcasts offer viewers a better sense of what it’s like for players than other angles.

The NFL Network cable network showed the same game in the conventional fashion as we saw it in 3D. There were different announcers for our game, because 3D production company 3ality Digital’s cameras followed the action differently as well as presenting it in three dimensions. The camera angles were closer to the action. We were surprised how realistic it was. It was not as if we were on the field with the players, but just like we were on the sideline with the coaches.

The announcers kept quiet for minutes at a time to allow the sounds of the game — players colliding, grunting and at times cursing. That enhanced the “being there” experience.

So what’s the catch? There were a few. First, though the visuals were top-notch for most of the game, there were times when the image, or parts of it, were fuzzy. These instances weren’t a huge distraction, and not long-lasting, but they did make your head hurt a little bit until the cameras cut to a clearer shot.

Secondly, the satellite feed gave out twice during the game. Not the fault of the 3D technology, we were told, just a plain old satellite glitch. Still, that forced many of us from the theater and into the VIP room, where we could eat and drink while waiting for the game to come back on.

That brings us to a major point about the experience.  Once the game returned (about a 10-minute interruption), many people chose not to go back to the theater. As several people we talked to noted, sitting quietly in a theater just seemed like a strange, overly polite way to watch a live sports broadcast. In the VIP room, we could watch the game on specially outfitted 3D TV sets and chat, yell or debate about it over drinks and snacks — pretty much the same way we would normally watch a game at home or in a bar.

Eventually, the staff working at the event pressured people to return to the theater, which we did, only to find the crowd had thinned significantly since kickoff.  That didn’t minimize what we thought was a pretty cool viewing experience, but goes to show that for sports fans, the experience of game-watching goes beyond just how it looks on the screen. Loudly criticizing referee calls or cheering touchdowns is equally as important for fans. But, let’s face it, that kind of noise is nearly impossible to make in a movie theater, where we have been conditioned to shush even the smallest whisper by the stranger next to us.

It may not be the innovation that was instant replay when it was introduced in the 1960s. But 3D football is just about ready for prime time and already very ready for a theater near you, if they allow beers and cheers.

If you want to try out the experience yourself, RealD’s Lewis said the Bowl Championship Series college football championship game will be shown at selected theaters early next year, one of several live 3D sports broadcasts planned for 2009.

Bernie Woodall contributed to this post. Photos by Reuters.

5 comments

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Hi, Bernie: Thanks for the coverage, and thanks for coming to the event. We at 3ality Digital are delighted that the NFL partnered with us for the broadcast, and are equally delighted with the results. And yes, we agree that cheerings and catcalls are a necessary part of the experience — particularly when dealing with “football” on your side of the pond — and are definitely looking forward to the day when those 3D television sets will be in pubs and homes. May be sooner than we all think!

–Angela Wilson Gyetvan, 3ality Digital

Apologies, I meant to say “Nichola and Bernie” above.

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As a independent 3D content provider for the 3D Demo reel that was shown at the game, I am curious what you thought of the Surf snow and Skate Footage shown.
Per Peterson/Times Squared Productions-X2

Posted by Per Peterson | Report as abusive

This is very interesting, I am only hoping that the games will come to Denver!

Posted by Brandon C. | Report as abusive

Hello Per Peterson. Yes yes yes the surfing and snowboarding footage was memorable. The flakes of snow after the snowboarder cut seemed like they were coming right at us. The 3D shots of objects (footballs, snow, surfers) coming right at the camera really brings out the advantages over “2D” video. Football is largely watched by people who either never played or never played beyond high school. I assume people active in a sport would be even more likely to support extra charges if there are any for 3D. There’s a huge audience of snowboarders and surfers who would love this. Also I assume that golf, because there are so many active golfers, will work. Golf for me on TV is boring but my friends who are golfers can watch it for hours and hours. But I digress. YES, way cool footage.

Posted by Bernie Woodall | Report as abusive