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Masters offers peek at sports TV in 3-D

It's the mystery of watching golf on TV. A player hits a putt, the ball starts rolling toward the hole, then with no warning it curves hard to the left.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's the mystery of watching golf on TV. A player hits a putt, the ball starts rolling toward the hole, then with no warning it curves hard to the left.

Not anymore.

To the few Americans who own 3-D-capable television sets, every undulation of the greens at Augusta National will be visible during the Masters. No longer will putts break for seemingly no reason or will viewers struggle to judge the distance from golfer to hole.

A special national broadcast of the Masters this week is the first of what could soon be many 3-D sports events available on home TVs.

ESPN will launch a 3-D network later this year in time for the World Cup.

A live stream of the Masters will also be available for 3-D-capable computers.

Sports fans hearing such announcements are left to wonder how to access 3-D telecasts — and whether they're even worth it.

On the access front, the answer is viewers must own a 3-D-compatible set to watch the broadcasts, and they'll need to find out whether their cable service provider carries a separate 3-D channel, which is also necessary for viewing.

Is 3-D worth it? For golf, at least, the third dimension makes a major difference. A demonstration by Comcast Corp. of Masters test footage last week showed how the wide shots and attractive scenery make for the eye-appealing equivalent of a nature film.

More importantly, 3-D has a practical benefit for rabid golf fans. Now they can play caddie from home, judging how hard or at what angle a putt needs to be hit to roll through the undulations of the green and into the hole.

Comcast executives agreed that golf works especially well in 3-D. For sports like basketball and hockey, with their tight camera shots and quick action, the learning curve is steeper for networks.

"Having something small that's moving very fast, I think that's going to be a bit more challenging," said Derek Harrar, Comcast's senior vice president for video and entertainment services.

Mark Hess, Comcast's senior vice president for advanced business and technology development, predicted that soccer and baseball will also work well in 3-D from the beginning.

The Masters 3-D telecast will feature two hours of live afternoon coverage each day, mostly of the back nine, with its own separate commentators.

Sports fans will have to decide how practical it is to watch sports in 3-D. Viewers must wear special glasses, and the effect works best if they're looking directly at the TV from a couple of yards away. So multitasking and 3-D don't go well together.

But it's best to think of 3-D as an optional feature on a high-end HD set instead of a different kind of television. Viewers can switch back to a regular HD feed if they don't want to watch a 3-D broadcast. Consumers in the market for a new TV may opt for a 3-D-capable set even if they don't plan to watch anything in 3-D right away, especially as prices continue to come down.

For instance, the original list price for a 2009 55-inch LED TV from Samsung was $3,999.99, while the company's 2010 3-D LED TV of the same size is listed at $3,299.99.

Glasses add to the cost, starting at $149 each, although the company is offering two pairs for free with certain purchases.

Mark Francisco, an engineering expert from Comcast, said that eventually 3-D technology will evolve so glasses aren't needed, but that could take 10 years.

For now, sports fans will have to decide whether they'll feel silly sitting on their couches wearing special glasses.