The World Cup in 3D – a closer viewing

The Odeon Covent Garden has been showing several of this summer’s World Cup matches live and in 3D on their cinema screen. I went down to catch the semi-final between Germany and Spain. It was my first time seeing Sony’s 3D technology. Initial impressions as follows.

First things first, the cost: £17.50 plus another quid on top for the glasses. For the same price you could enjoy four pints and packet of crisps at the pub showing the match round the corner. Unsurprisingly then, the auditorium was only about two-thirds full. This cinema did sell beer so the total damage for watching the match came to around £25. That is not too far off the entrance fee to the cheaper Premier League matches. Ah, well.

The screen we were shown the match on was one of those smaller second string affairs you get in the chain cinemas, holding around 200. My seat was in the sixth or seventh row, and slightly left of centre. The plastic glasses provided for the show were the same relatively light and unobtrusive ones you get for most 3D films.

Putting the glasses on reveals a picture that feels both more and less sharp at the same time. The sharpness of the visuals is in the way that the added sense of depth given to the image segments and distributes the various objects in the picture into slightly more distinct locations within the space. When looking at the playing field one is reminded of something like a figurine display, in which each of the individual objects have a realistic and solid look to them but never quite meld into their overall surroundings. When the camera is zoomed out on play the effect is not unlike the many tilt shift videos you see today (ex.: Sumo, American football), with the vaguely angular and isometric cast that is infused in the images sometimes becoming unnaturally pronounced. Sharp, distinct lines, such as the advertising hoardings running the length of the pitch, become doubly sharp, and thus the goal posts, with their angled white lines, look particularly model-like. At times the moving players also seem to pop out from the rest of the image, as if they were being separately projected upon a more flat and static projection. In other instances, particularly when the camera is zoomed in on non-linear, static images, like the close shots of the coaches sitting on the bench, the image loses any sense of 3D, looking no different then a regular televised image. This shifting sense of the image having alternating degrees of 3D-ness is the overriding quality of Sony’s technology. It is what also gives the visuals a sense of unsharpness, in that the effect is always morphing between different degrees of depth and focus, with individual parts of the image popping and others remaining more flat. Wearing the glasses also makes the picture slightly darker, and if you ignore the moving images for a moment you can just about make out the faint texture of the alternating lines in the picture, a subtly tangible reminder of the screen’s flat surface and the tricks being played on the bespectacled eyes.

As for the experience of watching the football itself, despite all these niggles in the viewing experience, the technology did indeed add to the experience. To those who don’t play football or have not watched a game close up in person, football can look deceptively easy and straightforward on television. For many, this can in turn lead to a sense of frustration when players fail to execute what seem like relatively straightforward plays – as seen from the zoomed out god’s eye view of the pitch that you get in the comfort of your own couch or bar stool. Perhaps the best thing about watching the match in 3D is that it gives an increased visual awareness of the difficulty and skill involved in the game. Germany’s two metre tall Per Mertesacker looked every bit the physically imposing giant that he is. Every time Spain’s Pedro went on one of his mazy runs you had a stronger sense of the seeming impossibility of his forays and an added rush of surprise on those occasions when he managed to burst through the defensive ranks. It’s not far different from the sense of hard won achievement one might get in scoring a goal in the more life like contemporary football video games, versus the more pinball-esque pleasures of the older, top down 2D titles like Sensible Soccer. This is particularly noticeable when watching an excellent passing team like Spain. Their lauded brand of ‘tiki-taka’ football, the short, quick and controlled passing of ball to feet, can look almost cartoonishly easy when seen on normal television. In 3D you get a better sense of the deftness of the touches involved, with an added sense of heft to the perfectly weighted Xavi pass and a greater density in the movement of the ball and the players around it. This is also enhanced by the way in which the added perception of depth in the image lends greater clarity and visibility to the congested middle areas of the pitch. On a flatter image the tight spaces in these central areas can be hard to distinguish, in 3D they are ever so slightly more differentiated and this results in a richer sense of the intricacies of close control, movement and defending that are involved in these busy spaces.

Another noticeable improvement is in the use of close-ups. A personal bugbear of mine is the way in which much modern day football coverage has increasingly been broken up by ever greater use of the close-up. The point of such shots is clearly to immerse the viewer in the action on the pitch, but this is always to the detriment of having the all-important sense of where everyone else is in relation to the zoomed in player on the ball. This is one of the great pleasures of watching live, being able to take in any event on (and around) the pitch in the manner of your choosing, as opposed to just those areas which the camera crew have chosen to focus on. Nevertheless, in 3D these action close-ups are undoubtedly more dynamic and (so long as they are used sparingly) do inject a fair bit of vitality to the play, providing a greater sense of velocity and volatility than their well-worn, flattened counterparts. This is part of the overall increased sense of movement that you get in the 3D picture. You even sense the motion of the cameras themselves, moving on their booms to track the play and lending that extra little nudge to the ebb and flow of the match, each wave of attack rolling in with a more noticeable sense of momentum. When a player backs in to the camera for a throw-in the 3D works particularly well, the temporary tide of the movement and perspective drawing him first out of and then back into the picture. Behind the goal and side on angles of the play also feel generally effective, with less noticeable choppiness and shifting in the 3D. Perhaps the most heightened effects were not on the pitch but in the images of the crowds. Here the deepening layering effect really kicks in. Each row of fans are clearly discernible, creating a rich, undulating tapestry of shapes and colours. The larger banners and particularly the flags hover out nicely amidst the waves of fans, creating as compelling a 3D effect as was to be seen in the match.

In contrast to such improvements, the ball itself can look a bit odd at times. It’s hard to pin down exactly what is unusual about it. Perhaps the 3D used is less effective on such a small and fast moving object. It may have been my imagination but the ball felt somehow smaller than usual, even allowing for the effect of watching the game on a bigger screen. On goal kicks and corners, the ball’s movement through the air could at times pitch and wobble in a slightly strange fashion, making headers look rather awkward and unpredictable affairs (as indeed they are). The Jabulani ball used for the tournament has come in for much stick from the players, but on normal television it was hard to discern any major difference in its movement. Perhaps it required 3D to notice its eccentricities.

Infographics are the one element that Sony can really push the boat out on in terms of 3D effects. The FIFA logo that flashed before every instant replay bends out from the screen in a curved, scrolling effect, while match statistics hover nicely in their own projected space. Moving your head left or right gently draws such projected images along with you. Clearly there is room for some interesting innovations and uses to be made with these digital overlays to the real world image.

Also worth noting is that watching this in the cinema meant better sound and a much larger screen than you would normally have watching a match on television, and this undoubtedly informed many of the visual and other palpable improvements mentioned above. Each touch of the ball was matched by a nice resounding thump, and those vuvezelas, buzzing like prying, tinny little bees on a normal television, had a nice deeper resonance to them in the swarming surround sound of the auditorium. It would also be worth knowing whether the larger screen, while more immersive in many respects, may have meant a perceived or actual lower density in the resolution of the blown up picture.

So all in all a welcome (if currently far too pricey) addition to football and imaging. It wasn’t the Lumière Brothers’ train rolling fantastically into view, but it was a unique enough visual experience to merit interest. As an introductory foray it has several flaws, with the uneveness of the 3D effect being the most noticeable. But the added sense of depth and dynamism it adds to watching a game of football was certainly worth perservering with. When the final whiste blew, several of the large contingent of Spanish fans in the audience ran out on the small stage in front of the screen, waving their flags back and forth and singing success – their 3D glasses still on. Despite the relative novelty and occasional awkwardness of it all, this was still football as we know it, and that alone is always worth a bit of cheer.

(exinfoam - The World Cup in 3D)
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