Geeks who are into fast cars and stereoscopic displays must think that watching F1 races in 3D is the bees-knees. However, FIA, the sport's governing body, has often been resistant to new technology -- only adopting HD a few years ago. That's why when the FIA asked Sky to produce a test-broadcast of the
practice testing laps in the run up to the Barcelona Grand Prix, the British broadcaster jumped at the chance. Naturally, BSkyB wanted to show off its technical marvel, and so invited us to come and see what it was like. Of course, like the good geeks that we are, our attention was focused on keeping Sky's chief engineer Chris Johns in a corner and needling him with questions. Curious to find out what he said (apart from "please go away," of course)? After the break is where all the cool kids are at.
Johns explained to us that the broadcast team arrived in Spain with eight fixed 3D cameras and set them out in key locations like the opening straight and first corner. It also threw in a pair of handheld Panasonic cameras so a crew could cover the pit-lane goings on and capture some driver interviews. While none were used at this test, Johns is also a big fan of Sony's PMW-TD300 3D camera, of which the company recently bought a few.
Strictly, this was merely a demonstration that required lots of wrangling from the various parties, but we couldn't help but ask: how feasible is it to capture the action from the driver's point of view? Understandably, we would have loved to follow a drivers progress as they rushed through the Circuit de Catalunya, but F1 regulations prevented the company from adding anything extra to the cars. But for the paperwork wrangling, however, such a setup is entirely possible -- Johns said that a pair of GoPro HD cameras could be mounted at fixed points in the car, and the broadcasting system would handle mashing the two pictures into one. He also added that Sky's current setup can correct for errors if one of the cameras were knocked out of alignment -- ensuring that the 3D picture is seamless.
Sky's understandably proud of the demonstration, after all, it came to the broadcaster because of its wealth of experience in the nascent 3D space, producing more than rivals in the US and Asia. It puts its success down to what it describes as a "technically literate" audience of early-adopting Brits, all rushing out to upgrade to the latest and greatest. While no-one was beating down its door for 3D content, early uptake for the channel has proved people are eager to wear those dorky glasses. When we asked about the likelihood of Sky expanding beyond sporting and nature documentaries to drama productions, the response was lukewarm, to say the least.
In many ways, this demo was an audition to see if F1 could work in 3D, and you're all curious to know what your humble narrator thought of the experience. Well, in certain angles, it's tremendously effective, but it's certainly not ready for prime-time just yet. You see, the cameras need to be fixed to a set depth, so when errant members of the pit crew wander directly past the camera, the effect can become very jarring. Also, Sky is going to have to re-think the language of filming events in the same way it brought its Soccer cameras down to ground level from the crows' nest we were used to. At a distance, the images are indistinguishable from a regular HD show, but when the camera is right in the action, with cars rushing toward your TV, that it all becomes rather exciting. Now all we have to do is wait for the next time Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt get together to discuss that "technology thing."
Update: This session was testing, not practice. Thanks to all who pointed that out.