AUGUSTA, Georgia — The nostalgia is so thick in the air at the Masters golf tournament that it sometimes seems a wonder you can see anything at all.
Unique among all the majors each year, the Masters has a single home — Augusta National Golf Club — which has allowed a set of traditions to accrue since the tournament’s founding in 1934 that is unmatched in all of sports. From the green jacket awarded to winners, to the $1.50 pimento cheese sandwiches that the attendees eagerly buy, to the azaleas in bloom and the hand-operated scoreboards, the Masters zealously guards its history and unique place in the world.
Which is why it’s about the last place on Earth you’d expect to be on the forefront of delivering live 3-D video content online.
“That’s the challenge here,” says IBM’s John Kent. “You’re always trying to balance the club’s desire to maintain its history with its desire to innovate.”
Over the years, the Masters was among the first big events to broadcast in color and in high-definition, and this year, it’s taken the leap into three dimensions, not only for the bleeding-edge adopters who’ve purchased 3-D television sets, but also streaming online.
The task of taking the 3-D broadcast produced by ESPN and getting it to the web falls to IBM as the technology provider behind Masters.com. The feed enters the IBM web bunker tucked behind the auditorium where the press works at Augusta National, where it hits three racks of IBM servers that crunch not only the 3-D feed, but also the other five channels of video that are offered on the Masters site.
According to Kent, one of the keys for the Masters is to try to give each user the best experience possible. So every video stream is encoded at four different bit rates to give the viewer the best video possible, without any skips or stutters.
That drive for the best experience was a big factor in IBM’s choice of technology for the 3-D streaming. The company only found out about the plans for the 3-D broadcast in January, and immediately set out to compare the different technologies available for 3-D video on computers, trying both passive and active systems, until it settled on the active shutter system sold by Nvidia.
“We did a lot of looking at the systems with the people here in Augusta,” says Kent, the technology manager for Masters.com. “Their motto is always ‘quality, quality, quality,’ so that’s what it came down to.”
Watching some of the footage revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of 3-D for live sports. On the upside, it captures the extreme changes of elevation at Augusta National, which never seem to come alive on normal broadcasts.
The terrain is almost never level on the course, and the 3-D really helps with that. But it feels artificial at times — like there are several distinct dimensional planes, rather than smooth transitions from the foreground to the background.
Boosters of 3-D in the home point to the success of Avatar as evidence that the public is hungry for 3-D content, but without the millions and the years that James Cameron spent making the film, it’s hard to capture the same natural feel.
Beyond the 3-D coverage, which will stream for 2 hours each day, IBM has come up with some cool ways of slicing and dicing the live video from the tournament. In the streaming player, a DVR-like view appears at the bottom of the window with callouts to key moments during the round. With one click, the viewer can skip to that key moment and then back to the live stream.
Also, there are hole-by-hole highlights for many of the players, linked from the leaderboard on the site. It’s a cool way to skip through a round in minutes, seeing much of the key action.
To handle all the traffic — last year, Masters.com had 6.6 million visitors during the tournament, and is up about 25 percent this year — IBM relies on a completely virtualized server environment.
“It used to be that before a big event, you’d count servers,” says Kent. “Now, we count capacity. And if we need more resources, we can just divert them from somewhere else.”
There’s nothing that can capture the feel of walking the course at Augusta National. IBM’s just hoping that Masters.com can come close.
Source: Gadget Lab