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Raise Your Glasses to 3D

British pubs flaunt the latest technology

3D Football It’s a Wednesday night, and northwest London’s Haverstock Arms is teeming with soccer fans. Large television screens, perched among eccentric bric-a-brac, show a north London derby match in English football’s Premier League between Tottenham Hotspur and their arch-rivals, Arsenal. As two young fans wearing oversized grey glasses stand up from their table to cheer the Spurs’ second goal, they spill their pints over themselves and their mates. Sheepishly, they blame the specs.

Maybe it’s cruel to mess with people’s depth perception when they’re drinking, but Sky Sports, the first broadcaster in the world to show sporting events in 3D, is optimistic nonetheless. As the Premier League season recently drew to a close, more than 1,000 pubs across the United Kingdom (a drop in the bucket percentage-wise, but still a significant number) were showing the games on specially adapted screens.

The company’s director of TV product design and development, Brian Lenz, is a transplanted Virginian who brings American gung-ho fervour to his job.  “We need people to see 3D to understand why we’re so passionate and believe it’s such a great experience,” he enthuses.  “That doesn’t mean that you take die-hard cynics and turn them into advocates, but when it’s done right, a lot of people really do love it.”

Two of the Haverstock’s three TVs are suitable for 2D purists; the third is 3D-equipped, and a large cluster of twenty- and thirtysomethings, generally younger than the pub’s other denizens, has donned Guinness-branded polarized glasses (£5 a pair at the bar, refundable upon return) to peer at its 47-inch screen.  Despite the fact that both teams’ supporters are represented, they’re hardly confrontational – even when someone stands up in front of them, they’re slow to grumble.

Nor do their eyes leave the game for long.  The broadcast offers an oddly scaled-down version of the cinematic 3D experience.  The high-definition images are preternaturally sharp, and through the grey lenses, the screen seems like a glass case in which miniature humans, the result of a mad science experiment, roam around.  Sky uses lower-than-usual camera angles to provide the illusion of being in the stands.  This practice has curious side-effects:  some spectators are shown up close, and during the opposing team’s throw-ins, you can distinctly see a small forest of middle fingers being raised in front of the play.  If a player lofts the ball high into the air, though, the camera often loses it.

Lenz acknowledges there’s work to be done as camerapeople get used to their new equipment; for now, a certain conservatism in movement and angles is necessary to avoid what he calls “negative 3D moments” like “whipping across an audience” in an unintentionally “psychedelic” manner.  He foresees a more fluid broadcast with an increased wow-factor, involving affordable net-cameras like the ones used in hockey.  “At the moment, we’d be pretty bummed if most of the stuff that we’re using took a direct hit and shattered.”

The Haverstock’s feisty Irish owner, Andrew Carey, admits he hasn’t yet been able to watch a whole match in 3D – he’s too busy managing the pub – but says, “I’ve seen little clips of it where it’s fantastic.”  For him, the experience so far has been a qualified success:  “Before, I had four large televisions – flat screens all around the bar, and everybody came and spread equally around.  Now everyone wants to congregate in the smallest area of the pub.”  What’s more, the 3D broadcasts invite an increased number of freeloading gawkers:  “Someone sitting there drinking water or drinking nothing is no good to me.”  Nonetheless, he says, “it’s wonderful at the end of the day – everybody leaves happy, unhappy, miserable, whatever.”

Alas, there’s only so much 3D can do to liven up a dull game, and this particular contest is dire. Spurs show little imagination and Arsenal, severely weakened by injuries, show fight only in the last ten minutes.  It’s too late; they lose 2-1.

“The technology is ruined by the result,” laments Arsenal supporter Paul O’Connell.  His friend Jonathan France, rather, sees 3D as a silver lining:  “I like it – it’s the redeeming feature of another desultory performance.” 

The one moment that causes everyone wearing glasses to exclaim “Woah!” occurs during a rugby preview reel, when a ball bursts across a pitch and towards the audience.  Later this year, rugby and golf will be added to the 3D roster, and sometime in the future, Lenz avers, there will be screens that allow people to watch 3D without glasses.  For now, the broadcasts seem to be catching on with soccer enthusiasts – it’s now the non-die-hards that Sky will have to convince.

“It makes me dizzy,” says Canadian ex-pat Terri Wills, who came to the pub out of curiosity.  “I’m a bit disappointed – I thought I’d get a great view of the players’ legs.”

— Originally published in The National Post

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