By Mark R. Smith
Exterior of NEP's SS31, one of the company's two purpose-built stereo 3D trucks. Photo: Ray Cordero
It was less than a year ago. ESPN had just announced the launch of its event-based stereo 3D network, which was slated to air approximately 100 events during its first year.
In the midst of that rollout, another kind of rollout immediately became keenly important — one that concerned the need for mobile units, 3D mobile units, to be exact.
But most mobile vendors, which have been building new HD units at a fast clip (see Markee 2.0, November/December 2010), had yet to seriously jump onboard and outfit 3D convoys. Only Pittsburgh-based NEP Supershooters (www.nepinc.com) provided that service to the market.
So when the sports network took the next step and announced during the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that ESPN 3D would air content 24 hours a day, it produced a ripple effect through the mobile world. The ambitious programming schedule, which includes rebroadcasts of events when a live show is not on tap, will require the network to deliver stereo 3D in a world where the format is still very much in its infancy and mobile providers are still assessing its impact.
Cameraman wields a PACE 3D camera rig during the USC vs. Ohio State game. Photo: ESPN, Inc.
Taking 3D on the Road
Chris Calcinari, vice president, remote operations for ESPN, is responsible for the technical setup and equipment for all ESPN events, including 3D broadcasts. "We're doing 100 events in 3D this year, and we're ramping up [3D operations] as we did with ESPN HD seven years ago. ESPN 3D has been an event-based channel from the time of its debut [June 11, 2010]. But when we came on the air 24/7 at the end of February, we began offering a 'wheel' of game highlights when there is no live event."
Establishing a network that broadcasts events from all over the world has many requirements, among which is lining up multiple mobile units for live broadcasts on location.
"We used to [own trucks] 15 to 20 years ago, but today we lease a large number of units," says Calcinari. ESPN relies on a core fleet of 44 trucks from various companies, including NEP Supershooters, Game Creek Video, Lyon Video and F&F Productions. "There aren't very many vendors, if any, that we do not use."
On the 3D front, however, ESPN 3D has exclusively used NEP to date. "There are only a handful of purpose-built 3D trucks in the market today. Two were built specifically for sports, and NEP owns them both: Supershooters 31 (SS31) and 32 (SS32). They have a lot of features, like being built to handle dual-path signal flow, which is obviously not a requirement for 2D," Calcinari points out.
The trucks also boast full functional areas not available in other trucks, such as convergence and stereographer areas, plus features like larger routers and switchers and 3D monitors (see box). "The 3D monitors are keenly important because without them, you can't see the stereoscopic images that you are producing," says Stephen Raymond, coordinating technical manager for ESPN.
Camera usage varies according to an event's demand. "If the event requires longer lensing, we use the Sony HDC-P1 or the Sony HDC-1500," says Calcinari. "The newer handheld [rigs] use the Sony 'Ice Cube' Exmor cameras (PMW-10MD) with full HD CMOS sensors, which were developed for medical apps, in a system designed and built in conjunction with PACE 3D. These camera systems allow our shooters to run with a lighter, more nimble two-camera rig when they need to."
Calcinari says that he's not aware of any more 3D trucks under construction, so ESPN's relationship with NEP looks to continue. Mobile vendors' approach to 3D is reminiscent of the early days of HD, he observes. "The truck companies are taking a wait-and-see approach before making such a big expenditure." (Editor's note: NEP also has successfully deployed its HD trucks for 3D productions, including coverage of the Sony Open in Hawaii for The Golf Channel.)
NEP's SS32 B unit outside Madison Square Garden for a NY Knicks vs. Miami Heat NBA game. Photo: ESPN, Inc.
Implementing 3D Advances
Part of what makes the transition tricky for mobile vendors is the same issue that has always been a concern during broadcast transitions: the technology. "We've been testing technology periodically for three years," says Calcinari, "and since we've launched, the technology we've implemented, and what's happened with it, has been remarkable."
For instance, when ESPN 3D launched the only handheld camera rig in use was an 85-pounder designed by PACE 3D and backboned by Sony technology.
"The large, heavy beamsplitter [rigs] were the only handhelds available little more than a year ago," Calcinari recalls. "They were made for cinematic use and not for sports television. We had to give our shooters plenty of breaks to handle that load.
"But we've already gone from an 85-pound handheld rig to a 22-pounder by working with our partners, NEP and PACE 3D, to make it happen. We initially looked for smaller lenses and camera systems with PACE 3D, which we are still doing as this technology evolves. But we've come a long way toward reaching our goal of building a smaller, lighter handheld rig. The manufacturers, notably Sony and Fujinon, see the need of building smaller cameras so everything plays together."
Both NEP's SS31 and SS32 have companion B units. "In the main mobile unit, you have all of the main equipment; but the B unit has all of the conversion stations and is home to the stereographer, the engineer who creatively determines the conversion point [which provides the depth] for 3D," Calcinari explains. "It's all about foreground and background. [The stereographer] is an extension of the director, in relation to the 3D angle."
Although the network and its vendors are in the midst of something of a learning curve, Calcinari thinks that the most important goal of the upstart ESPN 3D network is already being met.
"What we've done is set up an arsenal of tools that will allow us to arrange 3D broadcasts without having a major impact on the venues," he says. "Now most, if not all, 3D productions are taking place side-by-side with HD productions."
Camera operators ran 2D and 3D cameras side by side at the USC vs. Ohio State football game.
Photo: ESPN, Inc.
Adapting Venues to 3D and Vice Versa
When stadium operations managers ask how many more camera positions are needed for 3D, Calcinari and his crew try to add camera positions in a way that "is not disruptive to the venue by killing seats or blocking views."
For example, for the weekly NCAA Division 1 football games, rather than putting the 3D game camera in an obstructive position, the crew took advantage of MastCam, which rises to 22 feet and sits on wheels as it moves the camera up and down the sidelines.
"We control [MastCam] from the truck, in the compound," says Calcinari. "What's unique about this is that we want to use a seasoned shooter to operate it, so we use the shooter from the compound who employs the remote pan bar system. I'm sure they lose in peripheral vision by doing so, but taking that approach has worked out well so far," enabling the network to place a camera in an optimal position they couldn't have achieved otherwise.
ESPN used NEP's SS32 for coverage of the recent Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado. "We had a 3D presence at every one of the events and used a single truck and technical crew. Based on this, we had to reposition the cameras accordingly between the four venues," says Calcinari.
Those four venues — Slopestyle, Super Pipe, Big Air and Snowmobile Freestyle — were all located on the mountain, so ESPN had to lay more than 100,000 feet of fiber to make everything happen. "The broadcast was very challenging," he says. "The equipment is very fragile, plus there were environmental considerations due to moving it and operating it in the cold, snowy, unpredictable weather."
Despite the challenges, "nothing of this nature had been attempted before and been as successful" as the joint effort by ESPN 3D, NEP and PACE 3D, says Calcinari. "In addition, many of the images from the 3D systems were shared with the 2D show."
Stephen Raymond believes that the image sharing marked "the first time this was done in a significant way. All told, we produced more than 16 hours of 3D programming" for the Winter X Games.
"We want to be down low and close to the action here," adds Calcinari. "Some events lend themselves to those types of angles, like boxing and the X Games, [the latter of] which is easier to pull off since we control that event." (Editor's note: ESPN created and controls the Winter and Summer X Games.)
MastCam in use at the Boise State vs. Virginia Tech football game last September. Photo: ESPN, Inc.
Inhouse Innovation and Idea Sharing
The ESPN Innovation Lab has been "key in the development of the 3D broadcasts," according to Calcinari (see sidebar).
"We've done a fair amount of testing there," he says, "bringing in multiple manufacturers and 3D tech companies to assist in building 3D solutions. Steve [Raymond] and I have been working with CBS, HBO, ABC and others on the technology. [They] come to ESPN to observe and learn about 3D broadcasting."
"We all take a similar approach to 3D broadcasting," says Calcinari, "but do some things in different ways. We are beginning to share technical resources and ideas now that are having an impact on broadcasting in 3D."
ESPN 3D continues to deploy the NEP trucks for its programming schedule. SS32 has covered such recent telecasts as a boxing match from Salisbury, Maryland and a college basketball game pairing the University of Georgia and the University of Florida.
Both events were shot and transmitted live simultaneously in 2D and 3D. The network "affectionately refer[s] to [them] as '5D' events," says Calcinari. "They were very successful, and we anticipate more '5D' broadcasts in the near future."
Meet NEP Supershooters' SS31 and SS32
Both SS31 and SS32 are powerful 3D twin units boasting spacious production rooms with 3D viewing and B units that support eight or 14 convergence operators and a stereographer, respectively.
SS31's A unit measures 70 feet long (with tractor), 13.5 feet high and 20 feet wide, expanded. The B unit is 75 feet long (with tractor), 13.5 feet high and 15 feet 4 inches wide. SS31 is capable of supporting 10 3D rigs and features a Sony MVS-8000A switcher, EVS XT2 servers and a Calrec Q2 audio console.
Control room in NEP's SS31 A unit. Photo: Ray Cordero
SS32's A unit is 78 feet 11 inches long (with tractor), 13.5 feet high and 16 feet 12 inches wide, expanded. Its B unit is 69 feet 11 inches long (with tractor), 13.5 feet high and 13 feet 2 inches wide. SS32 is wired for 20 3D camera positions and offers a Sony MVS-8000X switcher, PACE 3D camera rig options, EVS XT2 servers and a Calrec Alpha audio board with Bluefin.
ESPN Designates Its Wide World of Sports Complex as Official
3D Development Center
ESPN Innovation Lab is located at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.
Photo: ESPN, Inc.
To provide a real-world testing ground to continue the development of ESPN 3D, in October 2009 ESPN designated the ESPN Innovation Lab at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida as the hub for developing 3D technology.
The concept allows for ESPN to host various technology companies to utilize the site for emerging technology enhancements focused on 3D television. In addition to the resources at the Innovation Lab, ESPN brought online a new production center to employ when producing live sporting events for multiple ESPN platforms.
"The Innovation Lab and the new production center gives ESPN a designated testing ground to continue creating a robust ESPN 3D network," said Chuck Pagano, ESPN's executive vice president, technology, ESPN. "This complex provides ESPN access to more than 300 sporting events, which means 3D production testing can occur throughout the year. The research ESPN gathers through these facilities will set the pace for innovation and provide fans the best 3D on-air coverage of sporting events."
The production center also serves as a training facility for production personnel to gain experience in telecasting 3D events. The facility houses eight edit rooms, which can feed highlights into the main server system at ESPN's Bristol, Connecticut headquarters.
ESPN Innovation Lab is a real-world testing ground for stereo 3D technology. Photo: ESPN, Inc.
Also, the production center controls 42 robotic cameras scattered throughout the complex, which can capture highlights from the various venues; the facility features 10 ENG cameras and four EFP cameras. The production control room has 16 channels of bi-directional video along with audio ingest, play out capabilities, graphics building and more.
To date, the center has produced two innovative production elements: Ball Track and ESPN Snap Zoom. Ball Track is a Doppler radar hit-tracking system that has the ability to track home runs showing the distance and height of the ball in-flight, updating continuously during the ball's flight. ESPN Snap Zoom is a freeze-frame technology that brings the fan closer to the play by zooming in an area of interest and providing insight to current action on the field, thus giving the viewer a different view on a particular focus of play.
The Innovation Lab also has played a role in developing the NBA Player Card and Ultimate Uplink.
Last November, ESPN and Winter Park, Florida-based Full Sail University debuted the Full Sail University Sports Lab Powered by ESPN. The network utilizes the facility, staffed by selected students and ESPN's emerging technology team, for R&D of various new studio and remote technologies.