Baseball in 3D Can Be an All-Star Event

By James K. Willcox of Consumer Reports

For the past few weeks, part of my job has been watching a lot of TV -- specifically, 3D programs on the recently launched n3D and ESPN 3D channels. (Yes, it's nice work if you can get it.) While some of the 3D programming has been underwhelming, it seems clear to me that baseball in 3D is a clear winner, bringing new life to even the most traditional of TV broadcasts.

First up were the two Yankees-Mariners 3D broadcasts from Seattle's Safeco Field. I viewed the 3D broadcasts on a 50-inch Panasonic ( PC) VT20-series plasma TV -- one of the best-performing 3D TVs in our labs -- which was connected to my DirecTV ( DTV) HD24 HD DVR, which has been updated to receive 3D programming in the side-by-side format.

To view the n3D 3D channel, I needed to go into the TVs setup menu, make sure the TV's transmitter is set to send signals to the glasses, and change the 3D setting from auto to side-by-side. The broadcast, sent over the YES Network and carried by the new DirecTV/Panasonic n3D channel, was shot with two 720p feeds -- one for each eye -- and encoded so the two appear side-by-side in a single HD frame on the TV. A 3D image is created when you view the picture with the TV's 3D glasses.

Unlike my experience with the FIFA World Cup soccer games, where the frequent use of longer wide-angle shots added little to games, watching baseball in 3D really made the game come alive, providing a you-are-there perspective to on-field events. For example, you really got a sense of the dimensions of the stadium, and why box seats cost more than those in the bleachers. For the first time viewing a televised baseball game, I had a clear idea of the distance between the mound and home plate, as well as the distance between the bases.

Even more impressive were the shots from behind the plate, which provided a glimpse of what the batter sees when he's facing a pitcher, and of how hard it is to hit a 95 mph fastball or nasty curve. Foul tips became more dramatic elements of the game, especially when they came right at you.

That said, the broadcast wasn't without its hiccups. Perhaps most annoying was that during transitions from one camera to another, the image would soften and sometimes blur before it came back clearly into focus. Another was that occasionally you'd only be able to see part of the play -- in one example, the pitcher tried to pick a runner off first but you only saw the throw, not the first baseman's catch or the runner's scramble back to the bag.

Also, while the picture was relatively sharp, it wasn't as crisp as the 2D version. That's likely a function of the side-by-side format used by DirecTV (and the cable operators who carried the game), which has to squeeze two 3D images into the space normally used by one HD image. That's done by reducing the horizontal resolution, in this case to 640 x 720 per eye from the standard 1280 x 720 resolution. The good news is that with the Panasonic TV, there was little evidence of crosstalk (ghosting) on any of the images.

After a few days in the batter's box on-deck circle, News Corp.'s ( NWS) Fox stepped up to the plate July 12 with its 3D broadcast of the Major League All-Star Game, also in the 720p side-by-side format and carried by DirecTV's new n3D channel. Fox hit this one out of the park, with a nice mix of shots, few technical glitches and some funny in-your-face 3D effects, mostly courtesy of the Yankees' Nick Swisher, who playfully boxed with a handheld 3D camera, seemingly sending his fists a foot or two into the room. Also, unlike the Yankees-Mariners broadcast, there were 3D commercials with some fun 3D effects.

Again, the intro stadium shots delivered a real sense of the depth of the playing field, and the lower shots from behind the plate provided a sense of the speed and movement of the pitches. You got a distinct impression of the spatial relationships between the players, especially when the camera captured the umpire, catcher, pitcher and a runner on second in one view. When a foul tip skipped backward toward the camera, you got an in-your-face jolt that only 3D could have produced. Likewise Ryan Braun's broken bat in the second inning, which sent a splintered fragment spinning toward the pitcher's mound, had an added element of excitement missing from the 2D broadcast.

One thing I noticed with the Fox broadcast was that unlike the Yankee-Mariner games, background images were a bit blurry; this could be by design to keep the focus on action closer to the viewer, but it was sometimes disconcerting. Also, picture sharpness was below that of the standard HD broadcast. It did seem that the overall picture quality improved after sundown; it's possible that the bright sunlight during the game's start created some issues for the cameras. In fact, one of the announcers talked about how the on-field shadows were creating problems for the fielders, but this wasn't really evident on the 3D broadcast. It was, however, when I switched over to the 2D broadcast of the game. Also, images were brighter and more colorful when viewing the standard HD broadcast of the game, which I attributed to not having to wear tinted 3D glasses.

And Panasonic's 3D glasses -- the bulkiest and least comfortable of all the models -- were the single biggest issue for my family when viewing the 3D games. While I was OK wearing them over my prescription glasses, they were an absolute deal-breaker for both my petite wife and 6-year-old son. Even using the smaller nosepieces and supplied head straps, they weren't able to watch the game without physically holding the glasses on their heads. So while they definitely enjoyed the 3D effects, neither was willing to wear the glasses for more than 10 minutes. This is an issue that will hopefully be resolved when more comfortable -- and child-sized -- glasses arrive later this year from third-party suppliers.

So if I were to grade the 3D broadcasts, I'd give the Yankees-Mariners games a solid "B," while the All-Star game earned a "B+," both fairly impressive marks when you consider that 3D broadcasting is in it absolute infancy. But as I remember explaining to my parents back when I was in college, a "B" is a commendable, passing grade -- though one we all hope will be transformed into an "A" in the near future.

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