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Even for a sports-hungry technology geek, 3-D television has a ways to go before taking hold

Take it from a certified gadget geek; it is easy to grow breathless over the promise of new TV technology.

I remember marveling at the first high-definition TV broadcast I’d ever seen, close to 10 years ago, featuring an image of a Law & Order episode so crisp I could almost smell the Brylcream in Jerry Orbach’s hair.

So, when I saw Camilo Villegas smack a ball out of a sand trap at the Masters in a spray of sediment so vivid I nearly jumped to brush the dirt off my pants, I wondered if this 3-D TV technology wouldn’t surpass everything sports and video geeks have predicted.

Then I watched the rest of the 20-minute 3-D clip from the Masters provided by the good folks at the Bright House Networks cable company here in St. Petersburg, Fla., and I had a second thought.

This has got a ways to go. Even for those of us who really want to see it work.

First, the fun stuff. Some of the camera shots were breathtaking in 3-D, capturing the rolling hills of Augusta National, the leafy trees and the shimmering waters with impressive detail. And some shots – like the aforementioned whack out of the trap by Colombian golf champion Villegas – seemed a natural showcase for the added dimension.

But the limitations of 3-D became quickly apparent in the Masters clips I saw, starting with the technology used to make the image three dimensional in the first place.

According to a Bright House technology VP, the image was created by two different cameras shooting the same image in a slightly different position. Which was fine, unless one of those cameras was out of focus or position.

When that happened, elements of the picture seemed to grow blurry as well – perhaps the watching crowd, or the picturesque backgrounds. The result was an image that felt more like a gussied-up videogame than real life – a synthetic simulacrum that wavered like the jerry-rigged Mayday message from Princess Leia in the first Star Wars movie (told you I was a technology geek).

The other problem; because the technology is so new, athletes, TV directors and camerapeople don’t know how to play to the medium yet.

Villegas’ shot notwithstanding, there were few moments where three dimensions added much of anything to the clips I saw. All due respect to the great golf legends on the course, but watching Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus shag ceremonial tees to start the tournament wasn’t much more thrilling in three dimensions.

(Don’t tell the Masters people, but I’m kinda wondering if golf was really the most exciting sport to feature in the first 3-D broadcast available in homes. Just saying.)

All this matters because sports seems to be the obvious way to get TV fans geeked about the new technology. ESPN already has vowed to provide 80 or more events in 3-D this year, starting its own channel, while DirectTV has promised three channels of 3-D, including Major League Baseball’s All-Star game.

That strategy makes sense. Sports helped fuel the spread of high-definition TV technology as well, with sales of HD-capable sets always jumping precipitously just before every Super Bowl.

But given the thick glasses viewers have to plop on for 3-D – with a price tag of up to $150 each – I’m not sure the same group viewing parties that make watching championship games with your best buddies on a Sunday afternoon so much fun will translate.

Indeed, the 46-inch Samsung TV I watched Masters clips on cost nearly $2,400. Even if a pair of glasses came free with the unit getting enough eyewear to make a Super Bowl party sizzle could cost another $1,000 or more – another high hurdle for those hoping to use sports to turbocharge acceptance of the technology.

According to an online study by the Consumer Electronics Association – the guys trying to sell the 3-D sets, mind you – about four percent of the nearly 1,914 adults polled in December said they were thinking of buying a 3-D set in the next year. Among the 25 percent hoping to buy a set in the next three years, an acceptable price range fell between $525 and $1,000.

But again, love of sports becomes an important factor in selling the format. The CEA’s study shows that, among those planning to by a 3-D set in the next three years, 48 percent consider themselves above average sports fans; about one-third of above average sports fans expect to buy a 3-D TV in the next three years.

Doesn’t take a genius to see that price of the sets, availability of programming and technology freeing viewers from expensive glasses are the three biggest factors in taking 3-D from curious novelty to in-demand feature.

Surely the sharp minds who turned the weeks before the Super Bowl into the second-highest season for HD TV sales outside Christmas can handle that.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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