I have seen the future, and it requires special glasses.
When the National Hockey League's New York Rangers beat the New York Islanders, 5-0, Wednesday night, it was more than just a local blowout. It was also the first domestic 3D television broadcast. And to my eyes, it was a game-changing experience.
Broadcast live from New York City's Madison Square Garden in high definition and three dimensions on a special Cablevision channel, the game was the first 3D sports broadcast in the U.S. (Sky claimed the title of first worldwide broadcast, having shown a soccer match in the United Kingdom last month).
To watch the special airing, a viewer needed ordinary service from Cablevision, a regular cable box, and one of a new class of television sets capable of displaying content in 3D. Since hardly anyone has bought the expensive new televisions just yet (like most folks, I'm still using an old-fashioned low-definition TV), I dropped by a special screening Madison Square Garden held to demonstrate the technology.
And it was stunning.
I wore a pair of clunky-but-lightweight Buddy Holly-style glasses that fit over my regular glasses -- the same kind you'll get at the theater to see Avatar. And when I stood around 10 feet from the otherwise ordinary looking flat-screen TV, I felt as though I was in the front row, looking through the glass.
Players faced off across a measurable distance, bodies slammed up against the glass and right into my face, and when the ref pointed at the action he actually pointed at the action, not just toward something. It also gave depth to ordinary shots -- a broadcaster on a street corner somehow looked more real than ever before.
That said, there are problems that will need to be resolved as the technology is perfected. Broadcasters need to figure out how best to use these new cameras: Action shots from midrange gained remarkable depth, but objects too close to the camera were disconcerting and broke the illusion of depth. When cotton-candy vendors crossed before the screen or a pole leaped into view, I yelped in surprise.
The current $3,000 to $5,000 price tags of 3D TVs might lead to similar gasps from shocked consumers. And many people are concerned that the 3D glasses required to watch the broadcasts are incompatible: If you buy a Panasonic model, you won't be able to use the lenses on your neighbor's Sony.
My experience wasn't quite what you'll get at home. Cablevision wouldn’t confirm which model TV we were looking at, but only professional models use the same polarized glasses as movie theaters. Consumer televisions from Panasonic, Samsung and others use glasses with built-in LCD screens that are timed to open and close in sync with the set, creating the 3D effect. They're slightly clunkier, but create an effect that's just as cool.
Because the 3D signal is generated by separate (very expensive) cameras, it was a completely different broadcast than the ordinary one, with different announcers, on a unique cable channel, and without ads. Which makes sense, of course: With a nationwide 3D TV penetration of something like .001 percent, who would they sell ads to?
MSG had set up a side-by-side viewing of high-def TV and 3D TV, and the two simply can't be compared. Many people remarked upon seeing high-def for the first time that ordinary TV would no longer suffice.
I've visited friends with HDTVs to catch them shamefacedly watching nature programs they'd never have sat through in regular definition. But seeing the detail in sunsets, running water, heck, even bugs is such a fascinating experience that regular broadcasts won't do. 3D could have the same effect; to my eyes, it's no comparison to HD.
MSG looks to learn from this first ever broadcast as it moves forward with a renovation project for the Garden, and the company plans more 3D projects in the future, though what they are and how frequent they will be remains to be seen. But as someone who's watched the broadcast, let me tell you: 3DTV is eye opening.