ESPN Encouraged by Early 3D Research

TV viewers watching a sporting event in stereoscopic 3D HD are likely to enjoy the experience more and recall advertisers’ commercials more easily than when watching conventional 2D, according to early research disclosed by ESPN Thursday at a press event in New York.

When the same sports content was viewed, viewer enjoyment increased from 65% to 70% when going from 2D to 3D and involvement with the game increased from 67% to 70%. The improvement in a viewer’s “sense of presence” was more dramatic, going from 42% in 2D to 69% in 3D.

The same commercials (for Gillette and the Disney-Pixar film Toy Story 3) showed more impact in 3D, with cued recall jumping from 68% to 83%, purchase intent increasing from 49% to 83%, and “ad liking” going from 67% to 84%.

Tests of World Cup Coverage
Those conclusions are based on extensive consumer research conducted last June when ESPN launched its stereoscopic-3D network, ESPN 3D, with coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup from South Africa. The tests, which encompassed more than 1,000 testing sessions and more than 2,700 lab hours, were performed at the Disney Media and Ad Lab in Austin, TX, which ESPN and other Disney properties use regularly to gauge consumer reaction to a variety of programming.

“The evidence is pretty compelling, at least on the basis of a limited sample,” says Dr. Duane Varan, a professor at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, who also serves as executive director and chief research officer of the Disney Media and Ad Lab.

The two-year-old, 5,400-sq.-ft. facility, staffed by highly trained researchers and equipped with state-of-the-art biometric measuring equipment, including eye-tracking and skin-sensor technology, has been central to ESPN’s recent efforts to analyze cross-platform consumption of media. According to Artie Bulgrin, SVP of ESPN Research + Analytics, the new measurement methods used by the Austin lab were also essential to gauging 3D’s effectiveness in its early days.

“It gives us the ability to measure things that are otherwise unmeasurable, and 3D is one of those things,” said Bulgrin at the event at ABC’s W. 66th St. headquarters. “It’s a very nascent technology, and it’s hard to indicate where viewers are. You can’t rely on rationalized self-response [methods] to measure engagement.”

Instead, the team at the Austin facility brought in consumers, ages 18-54, to watch live and same-day-taped World Cup games, as well as highlight reels and some other special content, on five brands of 3D sets as well as conventional 2D sets. Some research subjects watched only a single game at a time, roughly a three-hour experience, while others watched three games back to back for a session of almost eight hours.

Health Effects Gauged
In addition to gauging the viewers’ engagement with programming and commercials, the test also monitored them for any 3D-related health problems, such as dizziness, headache, nausea, light sensitivity, eyestrain, or loss of depth perception after viewing.

“We wanted to understand the effect of 3D content over a long period of exposure,” says Varan, who found that even extensive 3D viewing over a period of several days seems to pose minimal health risks compared with 2D.

“People who watch 2D are also going to get headaches, especially when there are vuvuzelas in the room,” Varan joked. “It’s deceptive to just look at 3D alone.”

Viewers were measured looking at 3D sets that used both active-shutter and passive glasses, although no side-by-side comparisons of active and passive sets in the same room were conducted. Varan’s team found little difference in overall viewer enjoyment between the two technologies, although viewers found the passive glasses more comfortable to wear. Virtually none experienced headaches with passive glasses, while a small percentage using active-shutter glasses did.

Natively Produced 3D
Part of the testing showed viewers content converted from 2D to 3D, as opposed to natively produced 3D. Not surprisingly, viewers did not enjoy that content as much as true 3D. Since ESPN was taking a host-broadcaster 3D feed for the World Cup, it was not able to experiment with using different levels of convergence, or depth, in the production and assessing viewers’ reactions. Varan said such tests are planned now that ESPN is regularly producing college football and basketball games in 3D.

Varan shared some other interesting findings from the tests. For example, when viewing the commercials, there was a large difference in the 3D impact between frames that showed the traditional Walt Disney logo, with the castle in the background, and ones showing the Pixar logo. That’s because, in 3D, the Walt Disney logo stood out from the background. The comparatively clean Pixar logo, set against a plain background, didn’t stand out that much in 3D.

Another tidbit: viewers with poor everyday depth perception were actually likely to enjoy 3D more than viewers with exceptionally good depth perception. That’s because people with good depth perception already have trained their eyes to converge in the 2D world to better perceive depth and have to “unlearn” some of their normal habits when watching 3D.

“The worse your real-world depth perception, the better your 3D experience,” said Varan.

Long-Term Model
While the ESPN research on 3D is encouraging, questions about the long-term business model for the new format remain. Some sports-programming insiders have expressed skepticism that 3D productions will continue once set manufacturers like Sony and Panasonic stop underwriting them.

For example, ESPN announced in January that it will offer ESPN 3D, which is being sponsored by Sony, for one year and broadcast at least 85 events (it is now projecting closer to 100 events). But the cable sports giant has not confirmed that it will offer the channel beyond June 2011. That raises the possibility that ESPN 3D could go away if Sony or another manufacturer doesn’t pick up the tab for the second year.

Such a move would not be unprecedented. In the early days of HDTV, Panasonic sponsored ABC’s first season of Monday Night Football