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NFL looking at new dimension

First digital 3-D game makes debut

By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / December 5, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Back in the early 1980s, Hollywood devoted a couple of years to marketing films in 3-D, particularly subpar horror movie sequels, such as "Jaws," "Amityville," and "Friday the 13th." Currently, Disney's Epcot in Orlando entertains audiences with its 3-D show, "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience," and Universal Studios in Orlando offers "Terminator 2 - 3D Battle Across Time."

With all the new innovations in technology, particularly in a high-definition world, it seems only natural 3-D would be used in televised pro sports.

The NFL Network last night aired the first live broadcast of an NFL game in full digital 3-D format. The San Diego Chargers-Oakland Raiders game was showcased to select audiences in three cities, including the Showcase Cinema de Lux at Patriot Place. The other two cities were Hollywood and New York.

Despite myriad technical issues, attributed to the satellite feed, the technology shows enormous potential. Once your eyes adjusted to the glasses, which didn't take long, the visuals were stunning, the picture sharp, and when the graphics came up on the screen, you felt as if you could reach out and pluck them off with your fingers.

As far as football, it certainly provided an up-close-and-personal vantage point of the plays on the field. If there was a problem area, which could've been the fault of the camera positions, it was that the activity in the foreground, which is easy to ignore during a regular telecast, was distracting.

The NFL, 3ality Digital, and RealD came together to bring the event to life. The production and transmission were overseen by 3ality Digital, a company based in Burbank, Calif. It marketed the first live-action film shot entirely in digital 3-D (U2 3-D), the first transatlantic 3-D broadcast (Jeffrey Katzenberg interview at IBC), and the first scripted TV show shot entirely in live digital 3-D (NBC's "Chuck").

RealD, based in Beverly Hills, Calif., is an expert in bringing the most advanced 3-D projection capabilities to movies. Michael Lewis, the chairman and CEO of RealD, said in a statement that the technology increases the audience's viewing experience exponentially.

"As boxing fans once gathered at local theaters to see heavyweight title matches in the era before pay-per-view and plasma televisions, RealD's new technology will give audiences another reason to head to the theater," said Lewis.

Howard Katz, the NFL's senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations, said one of commissioner Roger Goodell's priorities is to improve the quality of the viewing experience for fans.

"He continues to insist that we be as creative as we can and as innovative as we can to try to find better and newer ways to bring the game to our fans, and this is just an extension of that philosophy," said Katz.

Katz termed the undertaking an experiment. The process has been in development for more than five years.

"In the late spring or early summer of 2003, John Modell and his two partners, Jon and Pete Shapiro, came to see me at NFL Films to pitch the idea of a 3-D IMAX film around the Super Bowl done by NFL Films," said Katz. "At the Super Bowl in Houston [Feb. 1, 2004], we did some experimentation. We shot two 3-D film cameras. What we learned was that the equipment at that time was way too big, too heavy, too bulky, and too immobile to contemplate doing an NFL Films-style movie. But there were some great, exciting shots so those guys went back to the drawing board."

Much money was spent on new cameras, research and development, and Katz said that original company morphed into 3ality.

One of the challenges of last night's undertaking was that the 3-D camera positions were subordinate to the regular game coverage by the NFL Network.

"That's good and bad," said Katz. "We [didn't have ideal] camera positions, but on the other hand, it forced us to get pretty creative."

What this means for fans imminently isn't much, but Katz said it's a matter of when, not if, this technology will be the norm.

"This is such a preliminary experiment," said Katz. "The NFL is committed to our current distribution partners. I don't think we have any intent of doing widespread distribution of our games into theaters or on a closed-circuit basis."

But in the not-too-distant future, 3-D is coming to a living room near you.

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.

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