ESPN 3D officially launches with FIFA World Cup coverage: live from Bristol

It's official, one of the most popular networks in the US (if not the world) kicked off its 3D branch in style today, and we made the trek to ESPN's campus in Bristol, Connecticut to experience it first hand. Put simply, the campus is any gadget or sports nerd's paradise; technology is oozing from every corner of every building, including the one we gathered with other press today in order to witness the start of a monumental three-dee journey. At the front of the large conference room was a 72-inch Samsung DLP, which was delivering the 2010 FIFA World Cup kickoff in 3D from Johannesburg, South Africa. It should be noted that none of the 25 World Cup matches that'll be delivered in 3D aren't being shot by ESPN; instead, FIFA has contracted HBS to shoot and distribute a "world feed." We didn't notice too many glitches during the opening match, but ESPN assures us that native transfers will look even better once they kick things off here in the homeland with the MLB Home Run Derby from Anaheim on July 12th. As for the tech side of things, ESPN was taking in the 1080i50 side by side 3D signal and converting it to the US-friendly 1080i60 side by side, and since DLP sets expect the checkerboard 3D format, a RealD POD was used to make the link between the cable set-top-box and the TV. The glasses were supplied by XpanD, but not the same universal shutter glasses that we expect to be available at retail soon.

Afer we took in the setup, we sat down to enjoy the match, which was opened with a handful of pristinely shot 3D commercials -- of course. A Sony spot kicked off with a soccer team practicing, and naturally ended with a goal exploding in slow motion; without a doubt, this was one of the more spectacular uses of 3D that we've seen, though we're guessing that the budget for the ad was somewhere near the stratosphere. The other commercials weren't any less impressive, with another trio concerning a Gillette razor, Toy Story 3, and a downright comical 'This is SportsCenter' ad where Niel Everett gets a little too close to a pricey 3D camera with his trusty Louisville Slugger. We'll be bringing you more coverage from here in Bristol as the day continues, with the grand finale coming in a special Engadget Show segment that should go up next week. For now, head on past the break for a few impressions from the 1-1 draw.

As we mentioned, ESPN's not even responsible for shooting this one, but the shots were breathtaking. The soccer fans on site were probably the most impressed, but we witnessed not a single person scoffing at the content. The 3D effect was impressive and tastefully presented with minimal things being thrown at you -- although the score bug in the upper-left will take some getting used to. The image wasn't perfect (expected for a first attempt), as at certain times the signal would wig out and at others -- when the ball moved fast enough -- it got fuzzy. Representatives from ESPN tell us that a native 720p 60 3D signal performs better during fast motion, which is something we'll see during the Derby and Summer X-Games. Although frame compatible 3D isn't double the resolution of HD like Blu-ray's Full 3D HD, there was plenty of detail to soak in, and it's unmistakably HD quality. Sadly, we didn't get a chance to compare the detail to the HD feed.

Another unique aspect of the event was that ESPN had both active shutter and passive glasses 3DTVs showing the match, which is a unique opportunity to compare the two technologies -- not that it matters since all the consumer 3DTVs use active shutter glasses at the moment -- and while both were enjoyable, the active shutter TV was preferable. Granted, the Hyundai (passive) display wasn't nearly as humongous as the 72-inch Sammy, but make of that what you will.

Overall, the first 3D broadcast from ESPN 3D is an exciting occasion for 3D fans and sports fans, and we're getting closer and closer to believing that the format actually has a chance at catching on in the home.