World Cup 2010 / HD or 3D? / Soccer in Another Dimension

In the coming weeks, stores selling electric appliances will see an upturn in sales. The most advanced and the biggest television sets will be snapped up by consumers, as part of the ritual that greets every World Cup and European Championship. With the 2010 World Cup just around the corner, anything less than Full High Definition is, of course, completely unacceptable. There are even more advanced sets, of course, but more of that later.

Unlike previous tournaments, when some of the matches were broadcast on channels that require viewers to pay for each game or to buy a package of matches, this time state-run Channel 1 owns the rights to the games - thanks to the efforts of the European Broadcasting Union. Channel 1 will air 56 of the 64 matches, including all the games in the latter stages of competition. The remaining eight games will be shown on Channel 2.

The Israel Broadcasting Authority promised some time ago that it would set up a special High Definition channel, which would allow anyone with a suitable television to watch the games free of charge via the most advanced technology available - irrespective of whether they pay their license fee - but this plan have not come to fruition. As things currently stand, anyone who wants to watch the World Cup in HD will have to subscribe to satellite company Yes, which will broadcast the games on a dedicated channel. Cable company HOT is still negotiating with the IBA over the right to air games in HD.

Anyone who is not subscribed to either Yes or HOT, but owns a digital terrestrial television receiver, which picks up terrestrial channels and supports HD, will not be able to watch the free games in HD. The same applies to those who own satellite dishes, since the dedicated Yes channel will be encoded. Once again, therefore, even though the game is being aired free on a public channel, some consumers will be more equal than others. Nothing new there.

HD is the creme de la creme when it comes to soccer broadcasts and it is certainly much better than the regular broadcasts - but there are some who have already moved on to the next stage. The global box office success of movies such as Avatar has given a major boost to three-dimensional technology, and there is growing demand for sports broadcasts to incorporate it too. FIFA, soccer's world governing body, along with Sony - which, coincidentally or not, is one of the main sponsors of the World Cup - have signed a contract whereby 25 of the matches in South Africa, including the knock-out stages, will be filmed and broadcast in 3D.

The amount of money being invested in this project is immense - it is, after all, the first major sporting event that will be broadcast in 3D. So far, just a handful of NFL games, one or two matches from the English Premier League, a couple of rugby tests and the last NBA All-Star game have taken advantage of this technology. That said, it should be remembered that there are almost no domestic 3D TV sets and no ongoing 3D television channels. Given that a 3D television set currently costs around $10,000 in the United States and Japan, the only countries where they are commercially available, the situation looks unlikely to change any time soon.

Sony's solution to this is to set aside large public spaces with huge screens where the games can be viewed. There are plans to set up screens in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Sydney. It is possible that other cities will broadcast the 3D matches in cinemas, as has been the case in the United States for NFL games and the NBA All-Star game. At least one Israeli cinema chain has looked into the possibility of showing 3D games on its screens, but, so far, it's not clear whether this will happen.

Incidentally, Al Jazeera will be one of the channels showing World Cup matches in 3D, and purely by chance, as soon as the Qatar-based station announced it was going 3D, Sony announced that it would start selling 3D television sets in the Gulf.

According to Sir Howard Stringer, chairman, CEO and president of Sony Corporation, "3D viewers around the world will feel as though they are inside the stadiums in South Africa, watching the games in person." In reality, however, it's not certain that watching 90 or 120 minutes of soccer while wearing 3D glasses is the most comfortable experience.

Those who watched the first English Premier League match to be aired in 3D - Arsenal versus Manchester United a few weeks ago - in selected pubs across Britain, or who watched the England-Wales rugby match that was shown in several cinemas, reported mixed feelings about the experience. Some say that watching a broadcast from the same height as the players and the close-ups are incredible, and that they certainly got a taste of what it would be like sitting in the stadium.

Others claimed that the camera angle was disappointing and complained of sore eyes and headaches. So it's not yet been proven that 3D soccer is preferable to HD - or even to a regular LCD screen.

That said, market experts are convinced that 3D sport will catch on. In the United Kingdom and the U.S. there has been a massive increase in sales of 3D television sets, and an estimated one million will be sold in the U.K. and 13.5 million in the U.S. within the next three years.

3D sets are also available in Israel - together with the special projector needed to view the broadcast, the cost of such a system is tens of thousands of shekels.

In addition to the quality of the picture, of course, the voices that viewers will hear is also hugely important. Channel 1 is sending three teams to South Africa, each team comprising a commentator and an expert analyst, in addition to the production team and another group that will produce features on events off the pitch.

At first, Channel 1 wanted to send its most experienced duo - commentator Meir Einstein and analyst Avi Ratzon - but the latter opted to remain in Israel and provide his expert insight from the studio. So Danny Neuman was drafted in to sit alongside Einstein. The second team will be comprised of Amit Horsky and Ran Ben Shimon, while the third team, which will primarily commentate on Channel 2's games, will be Rami Weitz and former Israel national team coach Shlomo Scharf.