At last weekend's Red Bull Indianapolis GP, along with the usual vendor shows, stands, test rides and other activities, a rather special demonstration was being given in the media center. The oscar-winning special effects director John Bruno - responsible for the effects in some of the best special effects movies of all time, such as Titanic, Terminator 2, The Abyss, X-Men The Last Stand and a host of others - was showing footage from his latest 3D projects, which included a three-minute highlight reel from the previous race in the US, the Red Bull US GP at Laguna Seca.
I was intrigued by the thought of watching motorcycle racing in three dimensions, and decided to go and take a look. I am old enough to remember some of the previous 3D projects, which required the wearing of cheap cardboard classes with different colored lenses (Jaws 3D anyone?) and had failed to impress me even at a fairly tender age. I was lucky enough to walk in on a special presentation being given to the Tech 3 Yamaha team by John Bruno himself, just as the standard (non-motorcycling footage) was finishing.
The MotoGP footage started with an opening shot of the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, and from the off, I was hooked. Choosing the Corkscrew to open on was a stroke of brilliance, as that most iconic of turns is famed for its incredible drop, and for the first time on a TV screen, the elevation change just leapt off the screen at you. Perhaps even more impressive was the bump at the top of the turn: Though it has been flattened off in recent years, the ridge at the top where the track drops down is suddenly blindingly obvious. It really was just like being there, whereas every other time I have seen the Corkscrew - either on TV or in photos (even the fantastic shots by our very own Scott Jones), the pictures have failed to do justice to the turn.
From there, the clip showed highlights from practice, shots of bikes on track, and bits and pieces of various people in the paddock. What became clear as the three-minute clip progressed is that some things work better than others. The shots of racing down the front straight towards Turn 1 worked sometimes, but not always, which John Bruno freely admitted to me after the show was over. Other shots, including shots of riders dropping down the Corkscrew, worked much, much better, and truly gave you a sense of being there. There wasn't much on-bike footage - despite Colin Edwards' bike having been fitted with the system during a couple of practice sessions, hence the special screening for Tech 3 - which the taste which I got of the system really made me long for, as that would truly give a sense of just how close the MotoGP riders are when they race. But Bruno told me that the aim of the demo was to persuade Dorna to allow him to do a documentary movie, with the cameras mounted on a number of bikes. As the system is devastatingly simple - two cameras mounted parallel to each other at a carefully calculated distance - the effort involved would be minimal.
The close ups of faces I found less convincing, it was almost realistic but crucially not quite right. That perception was reinforced by some typical Valentino Rossi camera play, the Italian pulling his usual trick of sticking his face right in the camera. On a conventional 2D camera, that works quite well, but the fixed width of the 3D camera generated a slightly unreal feel to it. That feeling was personal, though, as other people I spoke to had no problems with faces, and felt that they were pretty realistic.
The effect John Bruno was trying to achieve, he said, was as if you were watching through a window. Traditional 2D TV fails in this respect, because the image flattens out. The older 3D technologies failed too, as they were trying for shock effect, to get you to jump by having something large and menacing leap out of the screen at you. But this was definitely the best attempt at 3D I have ever seen, and was devastatingly effective. My impressions of the Corkscrew were confirmed by Bruno, who recounted a story from filming on the Titanic using the 3D technology. Scientists who viewed the footage of the actual wreck shot with this technology noticed new details, seeing how the hull had bowed out from the impact, something which had not been obvious from the previous 2D footage.
Is this the future of TV? It's a little premature to say, but it was certainly convincing. The downside is that viewing requires special glasses, but they were comfortable to wear and did not distort real objects in the room very much. The upside is that this technology was made for motorcycle racing. All the things that make motorcycle racing exciting - spectacular tracks with lots of elevation change, intense close quarters action, real speed - come across incredibly powerful using this Fusion 3-D technology. Watching the demo made me long for two things: To see the iconic movie Faster shot in 3D, and to see a MotoGP race at Portimao filmed using this technology.
To get the best effect, the 3D technology needs to be filmed in High Definition quality. Despite Dorna's outstanding MotoGP footage, the series has so far not been shot in HD. Fortunately, that's about to change: Dorna staff speaking to MotoGPMatters.com confirmed that they were working on HD broadcasts for 2010, though nothing had yet been finalized. They also had interest from a number of the broadcasters who currently show MotoGP to transmit it in HD, but no firm contracts had been signed at the time we spoke to them. While MotoGP in 3D is a fantastic prospect to look forward to, many MotoGP fans would be happy with being able to see the races in HD.
To learn more about the 3D project, read the announcement over on MotoGP.com, where you can also see a video interview with John Bruno, the man behind the project (requires a MotoGP.com video subscription).