Wimbledon 2011 - why tennis is going 3D

Sony recently announced that it would film the Wimbledon finals in 3D for the very first time. But, what does it take to take the world's most revered tennis tournament into the next dimension? And where can we watch it? Pocket-lint was invited along to the first full, pre-tournament 3D test on Centre Court at South West London's famous tennis ground to find out how the magic happens.

"We believe Wimbledon is the biggest and best tennis tournament in the world and we're proud of our innovation. We want to push the boundaries even further."

That's Wimbledon commercial director Mick Desmond's view on the 3D trial for 2011.

As it stands, Wimbledon is no stranger to advances in technology. The tournament has a rich history of innovation since it was first broadcast on TV back in 1937. One such milestone was in 1967, when the first official colour broadcast in the UK took place with four hours of live coverage of Wimbledon screened on BBC 2.

In 2009, a retractable roof was introduced to Centre Court to prevent play getting stopped by the unreliable British weather, as well as to spare us from another impromptu performance from Cliff Richard (this actually happened in 1996).

Last of all, it was announced in March 2011 that the Wimbledon tennis finals would be filmed in 3D and beamed to 3D-capable cinemas around the country for the first time. Viewers are no stranger to three-dimensional sports on TV but, until now, football has been the big draw. However, head of production for Sony 3D at Wimbledon Duncan Humphreys, is hoping this summer's tournament is going to change all that.

"Tennis is designed for 3D. The arena is small and contained, the crowd is also relatively small and close to the action and it's a fast-paced game."

Humphreys also happens to be creative director of a company called Can Communications - Sony's production partner in the venture. Founded in 2002, Can Communicate has a solid background in producing 3D content. The company made its first 3D film trials in 2005 and carried out experimental filming at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

The production house has worked on other projects including Channel 4's 3D week in 2009 which included "The Queen in 3D" and "The Derren Brown 3D Magic Show". On top of those, Humphreys and his team have worked with Sony on the 2010 World Cup where 25 3D matches were shown on TV in 15 countries that support the platform and in 650 cinemas throughout 30 countries where there was no home 3D available. This year's Wimbledon men's and ladies' finals (as well as the men's semi-finals) will be broadcast to Apollo Cinemas throughout the UK. Wimbledon's Mick Desmond explained why.

"It's all about creating a community in cinemas. People will be able to see Wimbledon in a way they've never seen it before."

Apollo is the largest independent cinema chain in the UK and has already seen success at screening live ballet and opera performances to sell-out crowds. All of the company's cinemas are now fully kitted out with the Sony 4K projection system and 3D capability, and the tennis from Wimbledon will be broadcast to most of them in June. Apollo is planning these screenings as full-blown events, offering Wimbledon staples such as strawberries and cream and Pimms, and even kitting the staff out in tennis whites.

So, while the cinemas are sorted, there's as yet been no confirmation from the BBC as to who, if anyone, will be showing the 3D broadcasts on UK TV. Fifteen overseas broadcasters have confirmed to be taking the feed but not a peep from Auntie.

That said, Sony recently let slip to Pocket-lint that the BBC could technically show the 3D footage from Wimbledon on its own HD channel using the same technique employed by Sky who currently operates the only 3D broadcast channel in the UK. Whether or not that will happen is unknown but the one thing for sure is that with the contest due to start in a matter of weeks, we should be finding out very soon indeed.

In TV terms, Wimbledon is a very big deal. It attracts a global audience of 365 million people in 180 countries with an average of 12,140 hours of coverage broadcast worldwide, so how it's actually shot and delivered in 3D is of no small significance either.

First, the picture is captured on a 3D camera rig. The rigs are placed lower than 2D camera set-tups to create the added depth. The image is then fed through to the camera control unit in the outside broadcast truck and on to Sony's MPE-200 stereo image processor. From there it goes on to the vision mixing desk, under the watchful eye of the director, before it's fed through a dual stream recorder and onto the 3D signal encoder. Glad you asked? The final stage is to send the footage to the broadcast satellite from where it's beamed to 3D-enabled cinemas and 3D-capable TVs.

The production system for Wimbledon is actually very similar to the one at the 2010 World Cup. One year on though and there have been a few changes. There are now two separate cable feeds from each camera, rather than a fibre combiner and the cameras themselves are smaller which makes the rigs lighter, easier to set up and cheaper to run. The use of 3D cameras at Wimbledon will also mean that a wider shot than normal will be taken which is going to lead to a interesting new view on proceedings for those at home.

As well as the shooting, the BBC has already given its graphics the 3D treatment in time for first service in June and the next step is to do the same for Hawkeye - the much-loved technology recently acquired by Sony that maps moving objects on sports coverage, most notable in cricket.

The 3D trial day on Centre Court to which Pocket-lint was invited was the first time that the 3D setup had been tested. Two 11-year-old tennis players provided the sporting expertise for the half-hour test with an exhibition that would have put most adults to shame. Although five pairs of Sony HDC-P1 cameras will be used for the actual broadcast, the trial used just three camera rigs as well as the main 2D camera, the feed from which was converted to 3D. All seemed to go pretty well including the moment when a tennis ball hit one of them and became lodged within the rig.

Once the trial footage had been recorded, we were invited back to a screening room to check out the results. The video from the dedicated 3D cameras looked great - sharp, defined and the the illusion of depth on the screen was very impressive. The converted picture from the main 2D camera, however, looked a little strange. The court lines appeared to float slightly above the ground, and this, in fact, was one of the main reasons that the trial was carried out - to ensure that the 2D to 3D conversion is properly calibrated for an effective three-dimensional picture that's also comfortable to watch. Some work still to be done then.

If the 3D broadcasts from Wimbledon prove popular, then we can expect to see a larger selection of matches shown in future. The BBC currently holds the broadcast rights for Wimbledon until 2014 while a goverment mandate means that the finals must be shown live and in full on terrestrial TV. Whether the BBC manages to hold on after 2014 remains to be seen.

Sony is already in talks to produce the 3D broadcasts for the 2014 football World Cup, but will 3D have more mass market appeal by then? Sony's David Bush thinks that there's still some way to go.

"There's definitely not enough content yet but people who've enjoyed good 3D already are willing the industry to produce more of it, so the interest is definitely there."

Despite the minor teething problems with the main cam, the 3D trial looked good. The illusion of depth certainly makes watching the tennis more immersive and better than conventional 2D. There's still a long way to go before 3D becomes the norm for televised sporting fixtures, but taking Wimbledon into the third dimension is sure to give it a welcome boost.