Patrick Sauer recently attended a viewing of the first-ever NBA telecast on ESPN's new 3D channel, and it was a glimpse into our strange future: floating heads, precision celebrity high-fives, and lots and lots of really unreal detail.
I'm old enough to remember seeing the original Tron in the theater. It was 1982, and three things stood about the movie: I didn't understand a lick of it, the Light Cycles were awesome, and I was convinced that it was only a matter of time before we'd all be living in some sort of computer-generated hybrid reality. One day soon, I was sure, we'd be deep within the circuits of our Commodore 64s, watching Larry Bird and Dr. J shatter backboards. I was 11.
A couple Fridays ago, that future at last seemingly arrived. I headed out into the cold dystopia of a New York City night to experience the kind of virtual world that rocked my adolescent brain. No, not the Tron sequel. For fuck's sake, I'm almost 40. I went to Madison Square Garden and watched the Heat play the Knicks. On TV. In 3D. In a curtained-off room with canned beer and a carving table in semi-close proximity to real-life grown men playing basketball. And it was all, well, sort of unreal.
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Thanks to a preseason piece I wrote for Fast Company about the NBA's impressive social media outreach, I was invited to attend a viewing of the first-ever hoops telecast on ESPN's 3D channel. Having never seen LeBron James in person, I was honestly thrilled. Up until I read the email's fine print. I had no access to the actual game itself. Whatever. In the building is in the building. It counts, right?
I arrived a solid hour before tip-off. Outside, they were handing out cardboard "LeBum" placards. Inside, a group of young pumped-up Jersey mooks rained obscenities throughout the corridors. This may have been because they'd just learned that the tickets on which they'd dropped a shitload were fakes. The juice is back at the Garden, yo.
An NBA rep gave me an all-access lanyard (which he never took back; more on that later) and walked me through MSG to show me the 3D camera setup. Say what you will about ESPN's excesses, but when they go all out for technology, they go all out. There were nine separate camera angles, six delivered robotically, including a flycam over the court. The 3D broadcast is separate from the standard one, complete with different announcers (Jon Barry and Mark Jones, surprisingly proficient in keeping up with the camerawork on their first effort), different commercials (mainly for ESPN and Sony, but also one for a Norelco 3D razor that works just like … a razor), and different player screen bios (think Topps hologram cards times a kajillion.) Considering the sale of 3D televisions has "fallen behind industry expectations," it seems like a massive investment for ESPN just to show a whopping three NBA games in 3D. Then again, ESPN has its own 3D network; they have to show something. Maybe they could hearken back to the network's olden days and fill the off-hours with weird strongman shows and Australian Rules football, only now broadcast via glorious Euclidean space.
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A few thoughts on watching a game in 3D:
1). In a word: OhboyOhboyOhboyOhboyOhboyOhboy. It takes a while to get adjusted, but the game pops out in such vivid detail that it almost looks more lifelike than like life itself, man. (Which is to say that it will carry particular appeal for the geek-stoner demographic.) It's near impossible to describe, even more so than, say, Avatar, because the standard depth-of-field for sporting events is hardwired into our heads. Let me say it thus: In a shot from the three-point-line extended, you can clearly make out a face in the 10th row. Wizardry at its finest.
2.) Partly because of that precision, it's hard to follow the action. There are so many details to focus on — that Matthew Modine high-five was intense! — that it's hard to zero in on the game. If everything is emphasized equally, nothing is. At one point, as Dwyane Wade shot a free throw on the opposite end of the court, two heads appeared in the lower left corner of the screen. It was simply Erik Spoelstra talking strategy with Carlos Arroyo, but I couldn't stop staring at the floating noggins. It was like the most boring episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 ever.
3.) I'm not sure your average TV viewer will ever consider it normal to sit around the house wearing 3D glasses. The battery-powered Sony specs we wore were "active" (as opposed to the cheap, plastic polarized "passive" lenses you stole as retribution for sitting through Yogi Bear). "Active" means they sync up with the TV set and constantly shutter separate images to each eye. The results are amazing, but wearing big RoboCop glasses makes it awkward to simultaneously thumb through the paper, send texts, masturbate, or make a Baked Alaska while half-watching a ballgame. Are most fans that intensely focused on a regular-season basketball game? I'm an NBA fan and I can say, unequivocally, no.
4.) 3D games won't reach critical mass until tech companies develop a simple adapter for the HD flat-screens we all bought in the last five years. That, and/or eggheads will have to make it so 3D channels don't require glasses. The Sony goggles we had cost $150 apiece and are only compatible with the Bravia sets.
5.) If I owned a watering hole with a dedicated backroom, particularly in the Auburn or Oregon regions, I'd buy a half-dozen of these TVs, numerous sets of glasses, and pass on a hefty surcharge to the patrons for the privilege of watching the Fiesta Bowl in 3D. Oh, and the Winter X Games. Don't sleep on the Winter X Games. Snocross Adaptive! In 3D! Dude!
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The novelty of watching LeBron leap out of the picture never wore off, but sports are sports and a dull game is a dull game no matter the packaging. The margin widened, and I took off my glasses, said thanks for having me, waltzed up the Garden's red carpet, flashed my unreclaimed all-access pass like I belonged, and found myself a seat inside. Thanks to the blowout, I was able to grab a spot a few rows back from midcourt.
And there he was.
In the flesh. In glasses-free, honest-to-god 3D.
No technology even comes close to replicating the experience of seeing LeBron in person. He is a monster of a man, and even in the late stages of a thorough beat-down, James was still directing traffic in between Knick free throws, emphatically letting everyone know that he's happy where he's at. The fans waved the white flag. MSG went slack, as if the entire arena was collectively imagining what might've been.
Then, from the rafters, came a cry that reached the court with what Marv Albert would call authority. Everyone could hear it — even a certain former Canadian teenage soap opera star turned hip-hopping Sprite pitchman sitting courtside.
"You suck, Drake!"
I'm not sure if the future is here or not. But I am sure that some things are too beautiful to be captured on TV. Even in 3D.
Patrick Sauer writes for AOL Small Business, Fast Company, ESPN, and the Huffington Post. He is the author of the Complete Idiot's Guide to the American Presidents and is featured in the New York anthology Lost & Found. A native of Billings, Mont. (aka "The Magic City"), Sauer now lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. For more, check out patrickjsauer.com and follow him on Twitter, @pjsauer. Email all complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org.