If there's one lingering sensation after this year's CES, it's that already big and high-resolution TVs are trying very hard to get even more realistic and compelling to consumers. As proven by movies like "Avatar," 3D can be about more than things flying out of the screen at you like that old Joe Flaherty sketch from SCTV. 3D can be about immersion, and one of the true hoped-for killer apps in 3D TV is sports programming. I'll be the first to admit that I'd be excited about a 3D broadcast of a Jets game; in fact, 3D could help gain perspective on camera angles, and help with sports like baseball in helping keep track of field distances and fly balls. Plus, of course, it would look cool.
Would 3D or any other future form of TV ever replace the experience of being at the game itself, though?
I ask because I am a New York Jets season-ticket holder. My father, Michael Stein--otherwise known as "Jetmike"--has had season tickets for 44 years. He's been at Shea and Giants Stadium and even the Polo Grounds since the Jets were the Titans, and has only missed games to go to medical school in Italy (where, sadly, he missed the 1969 Jets Super Bowl). He also is a huge home theater buff; he owns a Pioneer Kuro TV and has 7.1 surround in his living room media center. I asked him whether there was anything that could lure him to give up being at the game and stay home instead.
He had no hesitation in his answer. "I go for the camaraderie," he said. "At the game, 80,000 people become one."
I can attest to that, as we both braved 19-degree weather for the final Jets game at Giants Stadium on January 3 for a remarkable night football experience. But our viewing angle, despite having good mezzanine seats, is far from ideal. A TV broadcast can zoom in and show slow-motion replays. Being at the game can show the whole field, but TV already has an advantage in quality. It's no surprise that the new Cowboys stadium threw in a gigantic HDTV over the actual field that shows off the action as well as it blocks punts; both owners and fans know that the TV view of the action is often superior, but to be at the game is still special. Stadiums are incorporating what concerts already have done for years. After all, most people stare at the screens during a U2 or Paul McCartney concert, unless you happen to have front-row seats.
"Forty years ago," my dad explained, "there were no flat-screen TVs. The experience 40 years ago was better in person than on TV. You get a better experience on TV now, but you still can't substitute the relationships you make with people at the game, in the stands." Parking-lot tailgate barbecues, friends huddled up in crappy plastic seats, and long lines at the bathroom all make you feel like you're in something together.
I'm not suggesting long bathroom lines at home, but the home-viewing experience needs to add a sense of global togetherness to match that sensation. And though having lots of friends over can help, with 3D TV you would also need a sizable box of potentially expensive 3D glasses to hand around.
Speaking of U2, of course, there's also the path of using movie theaters to simulate stadium experiences: the U2 3D Imax concert movie that debuted in 2008 was remarkably effective at capturing the feel of a live concert with added fly-over and close-up effects. The parent company, 3ality, experimented with live 3D broadcasts of NFL games in movie theaters. This still sounds like a good way to create that camaraderie, but finding fans to go with you and a participating theater will still be a challenge--no dedicated theaters for NFL games have emerged since that late 2008 experiment.
The Xbox 360 is rumored to be offering connectivity with ESPN in the near future, and the possibilities are fascinating. Though streaming ESPN content without cable appeals to me as a non-cable guy, another more interesting killer app could be Microsoft's Xbox Live party. The 360 offers friends the ability to watch movies together and communicate, but the appeal of such social viewing would be far better suited to live sports.
When I watch Jets away games at home, I'm calling my dad nearly every commercial break to discuss the last drive and armchair-quarterback the next series. If live TV viewing could keep an always-on connection and even provide ways that fans could armchair-QB and discuss ideas throughout the game, it would be a great way to take the stadium home. The 360 limits its party viewing to eight friends at a time, but imagine if a sporting event had a larger-scale "1 vs. 100" type of scope.
While we're at it, why not throw in a connection with the Madden game and be able to replay the live game during commercials, setting up current drive and play situations and making your own calls? Interactivity is the key to transforming home viewing from an isolating experience into a vibrant next-gen one.
I still don't know if I'd ever truly give up my Jets season tickets (although "personal seat licenses" have nearly pushed me over the edge), but check back with me in 20 years. Some of us out there, by location or cost, don't go to the games as it already is--and for the Super Bowl, most of us have only ever seen the event on TV. But TV truly becomes as interactive as I hope it will be, then who knows how many of us will choose to stay at home instead, permanently? "The memory is more indelible at the game itself," my dad says. "There's something about sharing the moment--nobody has a title, your status doesn't matter. Everyone is there for one purpose. And if you're loud enough you can even affect the state of the game."
That might be a hard hurdle for technology to leap.