The Masters in 3D: A Good Start, a Long Way to Go

There may be only a minuscule number of customers set up to watch 3D television in their homes, but Comcast is treating them to live 3D coverage of the Masters golf tournament (Comcast is making the feed available to other carriers, so it may show up on Time Warner Cable and Cox systems, plus Shaw in Canada.) Yesterday, Comcast hosted a demo of the service at the Newseum in Washington and I stopped by for a look. The bottom line: It’s interesting, but there are lots of glitches in live 3D that make it less appealing than it might be.

The demonstration showed off four different types of displays: Panasonic plasma with active shutter glasses, Samsung LCD with active glasses,  JVC with passive circular polarization glasses, and an NVIDIA GeForce 3D Vision system for the Internet feed. I thought the Panasonic and Samsung systems looked the best, which the choice largely coming down to your preference of plasma or LCD. The JVC looked less natural, but severe glare on the highly policed surface of the display made it hard to judge. The NVIDIA system seemed to suffer from a convergence problem–nothing ever seemed quite in focus–which may have been the result of either poor calibration or a badly encoded Internet feed; I’ve used this system and it can be very good. UPDATE: An NVIDIA spokesman says the problem might have been solved by adjusting the convergence in software.

The good news is that 3D really enhances the experience of watching golf on TV, though not in the way you might expect. The big gain is that 3D makes it much easier to see the slopes and contours of the course. When golf commentators speak of the break of a green, it;s often hard to get any visual sense of what they are talking about; in 3D you can see the break almost as clearly as the golfers on the course. Speaking at the Comcast event, golfer Greg Norman noted that the only place at Augusta National you can get a flat lie in on a tee; the 3D images made it clear what he meant in a way that normal television never could.

In a sense, though, Avatar has spoiled us for what 3D should look like. You can’t do in real time what James Cameron could accomplish with years and hundreds of millions of dollars in post-production. Like most 3D that I have seen, rather than offering a smooth perspective from foreground to background, images the Masters broadcast tended to fall into four or five planes, creating an unnatural effect similar to what you would see through a ViewMaster stereoscopic viewer. There were also some strange 3D glitches, such as golfers in the middle ground of the frame seeming to walk through trees in the background. (For anyone interested in the technical challenges of 3D film or TV, I strongly recommend watching the video of this panel of experts at this year’s Sundance Festival.)

Another problem is a fundamental psycho-optical challenge in 3D imaging  that may not have a solution. If you were actually out at the golf course and shifted your view from golfers in the middle distance to a far-off leaderboard, your eyes would automatically change their point of focus. The autofocus ability of the human eye and brain is astonishing, but only if you stop to think about it, which most of us never do. The telephoto lenses used to shoot golf inherently have a fairly shallow depth of field. For some reason, this seems quite natural, in a thoroughly unconscious way, in a 2D image. But it the more realistic 3D, our brains want that image to behave like the real world; if we shift our balance to the background, it should come into focus. But, of course, it cannot and the effect is disconcerting.

There is an opposite but related problem when the depth of field is sufficient for the entire frame to be in focus: You don’t know where to look. One of the most fundamental techniques in cinematography is using the point of sharpest focus to signal the viewer where to look and using a moving point of focus to pull the viewer’s eye through the frame. This doesn’t work in 3D, at least not the way we are used to.

I’m old enough to remember the ghastly images of the first couple generations of color television, and know these things get better in time. There are significant technical and aesthetic challenges for 3D to solve, but we are off to a good start.

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