3D plays a practice round at Masters

April 8, 2010: 10:15 AM ET

3D production cameras used during the USC at Ohio State college football telecast on ESPN

The Masters golf tournament in Augusta, GA, is one of the hottest tickets in sports. Unless you know someone on the inside, plan on paying thousands for entry onto the hallowed grounds.

Or, you could spend that money on a 3D-ready television and let Augusta National's famous azaleas and manicured fairways come to you. Starting today, 3D coverage of the tournament will be broadcast live on Comcast (CMCSA), which is also distributing the feed to Cox, Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Cablevision (CVC) customers.

This first national broadcast of a live sporting event in 3D could go a long way towards proving that the technology has a place in the home beyond repeated viewings of Shrek. Samsung, LG (LPL) and Sony (SNE) -- a sponsor of the broadcast -- would like you to think so: they are pushing 3D TV as flat screens and HD become de rigueur.

"In the test footage we've shot, you feel like you're in the gallery," claims Comcast spokesperson Jenni Moyer. "The sand comes flying out at you from the bunker."

Still, with only 1.67 million 3D televisions estimated to ship in North America in 2010, it begs the question: If the Masters is a 3D success, but no one sees it, does it really matter?

"We recognize these are the early adopters," admits Moyer.

While Augusta National is not known as an early adopter -- women still can't be members of the club after all -- it's actually not so surprising that the Masters is embracing technology's cutting edge. In 2000, it was the first golf tournament shown live on network television in HD, just as that new technology was taking hold. The Masters also counts IBM (IBM) among its sponsors, and the tech heavyweight will be routing Comcast's 3D feed to Masters.com, though you'll need a 3D-enabled PC to fully appreciate it.

Walt Disney-owned (DIS) ESPN is also in the mix, producing the broadcast for the Masters. Vince Pace, who worked closely with director James Cameron on Avatar, will be lending his expertise as well.

The event will serve as a practice round for ESPN, which is preparing to launch its own 3D channel in June with a broadcast of the first FIFA World Cup Match.

"I'm not going to tell you this is simple because we're still learning," says Kevin Stolworthy, ESPN's senior vice president of content and information technology. "It's really easy to produce bad 3D and really difficult to produce good 3D."

Still, ESPN has been dabbling with the technology over the past three years. The network produced a 3D telecast of the USC vs. Ohio State Football game last fall that was shown in theaters. In October, it also opened a lab for developing 3D technology at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando. The venue plays host to 60 different sporting events, providing an ideal training ground for honing production techniques and training staff.

"It's a 3D playground where we can bring the truck in, the camera operators, and give them real repetitions on producing this stuff -- what looks good and what doesn't," Stolworthy explains.

For the Masters, ESPN brought in a separate production truck from the HD team to support the special double cameras required for shooting 3D. The 3D broadcast, which will be shown on a dedicated Comcast channel, won't mirror the HD version though.

"This is not meant to replace traditional coverage," says Comcast's Moyer.

Instead, Comcast will broadcast two hours of live coverage each day, starting with the Par 3 Contest yesterday and will continue throughout the four rounds of the tournament. After it airs, the footage will also be available "on demand."

On Thursday and Friday, the coverage will air from 3-5 p.m. Based on pairings, that puts Tiger Woods in living rooms during the first round on Thursday (He tees off at 1:42 p.m.).

Viewers also won't see the whole course. During regular play, cameras will focus on holes 14, 16 and 18, with rotating coverage of holes 10 through 13 and 17. Translation: Augusta's storied Amen Corner, which covers holes 11-13, will be included.

Mike Tirico, Terry Gannon and Andy North will provide on-air commentary. But viewers shouldn't expect the fancy graphics ESPN is known for.

"We'll try to immerse you in the scene versus showing you a lot of angles and throwing a lot of graphics at you," says ESPN's Stolworthy.

But viewers are unlikely to miss them. Augusta National is known for being one of the most impressive landscapes in the world of sports, both for its physical beauty and the challenging terrain. The undulating greens should be particularly thrilling rendered in 3D.

That is, for those lucky enough to own one of the fancy TVs. After all, it's possible there will be as many people watching from the gallery as those watching in 3D.

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