On its 125th anniversary, the finals of the Wimbledon tennis championships were broadcast in stereoscopic 3D for the first time, with coverage carried by the BBC on satellite, cable and terrestrial television, and internationally by a number of networks. The 3D coverage was also shown live in a number of cinemas across the country and over twenty territories around the world. So informitv went along to watch at one of the largest screens in London but remained unconvinced by the coverage of an otherwise enthralling match.
Given the slim chance of getting a ticket for the men’s finals on the centre court, it was a surprise to find that only around one in ten of the 1,300 seats occupied in front of the 20-metre screen at the Empire Leicester Square.
The theatre has played host to many prestigious premieres, including the first performance of a projected film to a paying British audience by the Lumière brothers in 1896.
Movie legend has it that early audiences were terrified by an early film of the arrival of a train at a station as it appeared to draw towards them.
The spectacle of Wimbledon in 3D was comparatively underwhelming to a modern audience, which has grown used to having things thrown at it in the cinema. The stereoscopic effect was somewhat subtle on the large screen, perhaps having been designed primarily for a television audience, for whom it appeared more marked.
Fortunately, the depth effects were conservatively designed to recede into the frame, without appearing to intrude into the auditorium. The main difference to the traditional television coverage was that the primary camera position was much lower, so the top of the net covered the far baseline of the court. This accentuated the depth planes and the apparent speed of the ball.
The 3D coverage in conjunction with the host broadcaster the BBC was facilitated by Sony, in together with Can Communicate, a specialist 3D production company, as part of a three-year partnership, based on their combined experience with the football World Cup. The coverage was distributed to cinemas by Arqiva and Supervision Media
Five 3D camera positions were employed, supported by stereoscopic conversion of other sources. The captions were given a subtle 3D lift and the illusion of depth was used to good effect with the Hawkeye virtual graphics. However, the spinning graphic transition to replays was rather tiresome.
Tennis is a sport that should be well suited to stereoscopic treatment. The action takes place within a relatively confined space with well-rehearsed rituals.
With apologies to those that worked so hard to deliver the 3D coverage, it appears that it adds relatively little to tennis.
The strong perspective of the tramline court markings and the occlusion of planes provided by the net already serve strong depth cues. Our knowledge of the spatial trajectory of the ball usually overcomes any apparent ambiguity in the image. Directors already know how to invest the scene with depth, through composition or camera movement to produce parallax cues.
3D coverage provides no greater sense of being there, simply because the traditional cutting of shots creates its own scenic geography that we must internalise to comprehend cutaways or reverse angle replays.
Perhaps if coverage were confined to a single shot from one end of the court we might indeed feel a sense of telepresence, particularly if reinforced by surround sound. But television coverage typically displays insecurity about its ability to hold the attention of its audience, even if they are sat in a dark room wearing dark glasses with nothing else to do.
What is apparent is that the resolution of high-definition television, halved to deliver two separate images to achieve the stereoscopic effect, is inadequate for the cinema when seen on large screen. The frame rate, which is just enough to fuse successive images into continuous apparent motion, is insufficient to capture rapid motion in detail.
A fast service ball travels the length of the court in around a dozen frames. That explains why we may struggle to follow it as our eyes converge on two disparate images in contradiction to their focus on the screen. The effect is fatiguing on the eyes, peering through dark glasses at a dim screen.
It was evident that the match itself, not the technology of its transmission, transfixed the audience. Surrounded by appreciative fans, one could feel part of a larger audience, sharing this collective experience, knowing that no one was likely to leave their seat before the end.
That raises the question why so few turned out to watch, whether because it was available on television for free or simply because it was poorly promoted at the last minute.
No doubt those that have invested in the latest 3D TVs were grateful for the opportunity to view something of this quality in their home for nothing. Whether it will be the saviour of cinema or the future of television is another matter.
It may be that higher resolution, progressive scanning, and faster frame rates will add far more to the apparent sense of realism, but that will be more difficult to sell to audiences that desperately want to believe that stereoscopy will be a benefit.
Having decided to transmit the stereoscopic coverage rather late in the day, with little marketing support, the BBC continues a wait and see approach to 3D.
Nevertheless, the BBC has proved that it can carry such coverage across all platforms to any viewer with a high-definition receiver and a 3D TV. In delivering the side-by-side images it has also proved that it can transmit the BBC HD channel at full horizontal resolution of 1920 pixels, rather than squeezing it anamorphically down to 1440, which saves capacity but it continues to maintain does not affect picture quality.
In contrast to Sky, which is betting big on 3D, the BBC is uncharacteristically cautious in its adoption, allowing others to lead with technical innovation and delivering the best picture quality.
The real test will be whether the BBC continues its experimentation with 3D coverage for the London Olympics in 2012. Olympic Broadcasting Services, which will originate the coverage, has yet to commit to 3D. The BBC is certainly making no promises at this stage but it is difficult to believe it will miss such an opportunity.