Last night, I was at the Consumer Electronics Show, watching a big screen HD 3D live broadcast of the FedEx BCS National Championship, the game between the

3D without glasses

3D without glasses

Florida Gators and the Oklahoma Sooners. The event was sponsored by Sony and featured the combined efforts of Sony (acquisition cameras and 4K projectors), 3ality Digital which produced the event, and RealD for the 3D screening technology.

First, I should say that I’m not a fan of football. That said, the game was big, high resolution and very immersive, all of which combined to make it way more interesting than a 2D TV broadcast, even on a 47-inch flat screen.

That was the good news. The bad news was that, as RealD’s Michael Lewis put it, live 3D broadcasts are still “an experiment.” Very shortly after the game began, so did the problems. The image at times was soft and full of artifacts. There were major audio problems with drop-outs and explosively loud feedback from the center and right speakers. There were intermittant image glitches with part or all of the image going wonky. And, perhaps the worst, the game was full of momentary but headache-inducing convergence problems.

Bottom line: When it was good, it was very very good. But when it was bad, it was pretty terrible. If I were an audience member who had paid $20 for the privilege of being assaulted by some of the worst problems, I would have asked for my money back.

As I sat there trying to figure out what was going wrong, I realized that when you’re shooting live HD 3D television, sending the signal by satellite to a theatre and projected the images is that there’s so much going on that it’s difficult to parse what’s going wrong. Is it a satellite glitch? A camera problem?

As the game progressed, some of those problems became clearer. Yes, the image turning wonky and sometimes disappearing was indeed a satellite problem. The resolution problems were the result of too much compressing and decompressing: The game was being captured in 1080i, compressed to 720p to sent via satellite and then decompressed to 1080p to playback off the theatre projectors. As RealD’s Lewis pointed out, these kinds of experiments rely on kludging equipment together – no wonder the results aren’t perfect.

Probably the most painful part of the evening however (the audio screeching was a close second) was problems with the image convergence. Definitely a 3D problem. Broadcasting live 3D is a tremendously tricky job. The players in a football game move in unpredictable directions for unpredictable amounts of time, across a space the size of, well, a football field. Somebody in the production team is converging the 3D on the fly while the camera is constantly moving from close-ups to medium and long shots. That means setting the point of convergence and the distance of the eyes over and over again, for shots that are constantly changing. That requires a focus puller on steroids.

No surprise that among all the perfectly converged shots were dozens of clunkers. Many in the audience couldn’t help wincing out loud at some of the more egregious images. A couple of times, the eyes even flipped. It’s not a pretty experience. Long, fast pans were particularly terrible as the camera sped across the field in 3D with a convergence that felt like it never locked in. Ouch.

The game announcers, who were constantly referring to the 3D broadcast, at one point wondered whether a player who’d been tackled hurt more because it was in 3D. From a viewer’s perspective, the answer would have to be yes.

I wondered throughout the game whether another sport–one that didn’t involve movement over such a big playing field, with such depth–would be a better test bed for live 3D broadcast. Like boxing for example. (Lewis gently reminded me that boxing isn’t what it used to be and Ultimate Fighting was a better choice. Now that would really hurt in 3D.)

Despite all of this, I enjoyed the experience of watching a football game in 3D. And HD. And a theatre’s big screen. Take away any of those factors and I might not have enjoyed it as much. But judging by the number of people who complained that their eyes hurt after the game (and some left early because of this), it’s clear that for all good intentions, a live football broadcast in 3D is an experiment. I’d like to see them try again with a sport more suited to the limitations of the current technology.