At World Cup, ESPN 3D Focuses on Transmission

Host Broadcast Services is providing all of the creative personnel in charge of producing 25 World Cup matches in 3D. While that personnel arrangement means that ESPN’s 3D directors do not get a chance to practice their craft in South Africa, the network is free to focus on the transmission of the 3D signals, which provides a great opportunity for ESPN to test the waters before its full 3D schedule of events kicks off in earnest.

“From the 3D perspective, our efforts down there are all about transmitting the signal, and that’s been relatively good,” explains Jonathan Pannaman, senior director of technology for ESPN. “We’ve got some new encoding technology that has given us a few blips but they’re not really 3D-related problems, just new technology-related problems, which is good.”

ESPN is benefiting immensely from working on the transmission of the World Cup in 3D precisely because the network is not involved with the production. With transmission the sole focus of the ESPN 3D team in South Africa, that group can learn the ins and outs of the transmission process before ESPN’s 3D production debut at the Home Run Derby in July.

To get the 3D signals back from South Africa, ESPN is utilizing new encoding technology developed in-house.

“They’re MPEG4 encoders, but there’s a scheme developed between them,” Pannaman explains. “One is the master and it sends timing information to the other encoder, the slave. That information gets embedded in the stream, so that wherever you pick up those two streams, the decoder can see that timing information.”

At the decode end, there is also a master and a slave. The master sends the time that it has just received to the slave. The slave outputs the stream, lining up the time that it receives on the incoming stream with that of the master.

“The whole key is the synchronization,” Pannaman explains. “We also don’t reduce the resolution of the two discreet eyes before we get it back, which is huge.”

The signals travel via fiber from South Africa to Bristol on two paths, one across the Atlantic Ocean and one across the Pacific Ocean.

“One’s slightly longer than the other,” Pannaman smiles. “It’s coming back on dual path.”

So far during this World Cup, ESPN has run into one hurdle that had the potential to cause a huge problem.

“We did have a situation where one eye was one field out,” Pannaman explains. “It’s 1/16 of a second, a tiny problem, but when the guy is running, his legs would look like Edward Scissorhands. It’s a subtle problem that I’m sure after a while would get very fatiguing. We didn’t air it, we resolved it, but that slight timing error was enough to throw everything out of whack.”