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Baseball in 3D a Neat Novelty, but Not Quite There Yet

During every Yankees game for the past month or so the YES Network hyped the first ever Major League Baseball game broadcasted in HD. It happened last Saturday in Seattle, when the Yankees played the Mariners. The true 3D feed came two innings late thanks to a glitch in the production truck, but after that the experiment, by most accounts, was a success. The 3D era for baseball had officially begun.

On Tuesday night Panasonic, a forerunner in the 3D TV game, held an event at the Helen Mills Theater & Event Space in New York City. My colleagues from River Ave. Blues and I were invited, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get our first 3D baseball experience. After a round of hot dogs and beers, we strapped on our glasses and enjoyed a strikeout-fueled All-Star performance. Watching it in 3D certainly added a different feel to the game.

The goggles

This past winter several 3D movies hit theaters. The movies required special glasses, but unlike the red and blue glasses of 80’s 3D technology, these were more like sun glasses. They were cheap enough that no one really minded if you left the theater with them. None of this is true for the goggles required for 3D TV viewing. The new glasses are quite a deal heavier than the movie 3D glasses because they contain electronics that help render the 3D image. This means that they are more cumbersome. They’re also more expensive, running $150 to $200.

And here they are while on my face.

Ze googles! They do nothing!

The goggles were not comfortable at all, though that shouldn’t come as a shocker. They kept sliding down my nose, and neither one of the two size settings helped. Then again, I do not wear glasses. Both of my colleagues, Mike and Ben, do, and they reported no discomfort. It sounds, then, like they will take some time getting used to at best. I’m still not sure that I’d want to watch games every night while wearing these things.

One aspect I found strange was that the goggles could focus on only one display at a time. We had three TVs in the room, and at first I thought that the other two were too far away and thus the goggles could not render the image. After a few innings I ended up staring at one of the other TVs for a few seconds, and eventually a better view did render. When I turned my attention back to the TV in front of me it took anther few seconds to adjust back. Again, this probably doesn’t have any implications for home viewing.

A side-effect of wearing the goggles is the loss of peripheral vision. The theater had people coming around to collect empty plates and bottles, and I jumped each time someone leaned into view. That, too, will take some time getting used to, though I don’t imagine it being as big an issue in a household setting.

The image

In 3D movies it seems like the images pop off the screen and into the theater. On 3D TV it’s more like they’re playing inside the box — like a diorama. I’m not saying the experience is worse by any degree; I actually did enjoy the presentation. The 3D aspect added a level of depth that an HDTV just can’t capture. Cameras have advanced in technology, and we can in some cases judge depth while watching a 2D image, but in 3D the distinctions become clearer.

One aspect that struck all of us as strange was how only certain aspects popped in 3D. It almost looks like the background — in this case the outfield wall and scenery beyond — was a stage set. The field, too, carried a similar effect. The players did pop off the field, but it seemed like the field and the background were flat surfaces. This is at least partly because we’ve grown so used to 2D broadcasts. watching in 3D still felt like a stage play at times when the background was a prominent part of the picture.

For most of the game I sat at the end of a couch, putting me at a pretty extreme angle facing the TV. For 2D broadcasts this is usually fine. The image is flat, so it looks the same from all angles. At first I thought the same was true for 3D, and I enjoyed the early goings. But then around the third inning I turned my head to a TV that was to the right of me, but gave me a straight-on view. The difference was noticeable. Everything seemed like it was deeper and more defined. If you’re going to enjoy a game in 3D, I suggest you make sure to get a seat front and center.

The presentation

From the first pitch we could tell that not only would the 3D picture be something different, but the entire presentation would, too. When David Price wound up and dealt to Hanley Ramirez we were watching from behind the left-handed batter’s box. Like most other aspects of the 3D experience this seemed odd at first. By the second batter, however, I was loving it. You just see so much more from a behind the plate angle.

The most noticeable difference when viewing from behind home plate, and in 3D, is the level of detail you can see in the pitcher’s delivery. Every little nuance of Ubaldo Jimenez‘s elaborate windup was clearly visible, and that added to the viewing experience. Normally only fans sitting up close can see him go through the motions, while the rest of us view from afar, or from our 2D televisions. The 3D view allows all fans to experience the finer details of the game.

It does take a little extra focus to watch the game in 3D, at least initially. It took me a few batters to pick up the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, and then a few innings to pick up the ball off the bat. Again, this has to do with the differences in what we’ve become accustomed to and what 3D brings to the table. I imagine that it would take a few games to settle into the 3D viewing.

Part of the difficulty in picking up the ball came from the camera work. It seemed like the cameras and production crew were slow to pick up the ball, leaving us for a few seconds with little idea of where it went and who was fielding it, which was to be expected. Shooting a game in 3D is going to be different than shooting it normally, and it will take time for cameramen and production crews to figure it out. John Fillipelli, president of programming and production for the YES Network, made this point when talking about his station’s experiment.

Right now we are shooting a 3D game like we do a regular baseball game with the same basic camera positions. We have to find ways as we go along to accentuate the benefits of 3D in shooting baseball. These telecasts will allow us to start finding the best camera angles, determine how many cameras we need, things like that. To learn the nuances of shooting a game in 3D.”

Once the crews figure out what’s required for a 3D broadcast I imagine that they’ll pick up the flow of the game better. Considering I enjoyed the experience as presented on Tuesday night, any improvement in the presentation could make a big difference.

Additional observations

There were a few other aspects of the 3D experience that I noticed while watching the NL win its first All-Star game since I was in eighth grade.

The bottom line

3D TV will not change the world. It will not make it feel like you’re at the game. But it does provide an interesting experience that allows you to view the game with nuance not available in 2D. I’m not sure how long it will take the technology to spread, but I hope that by the time it does they’ve worked out some of the kinks. They’re mostly minor, so I imagine it’s feasible if 3D takes as much time as HD did to progress into American homes.