First look at Sky 3D television – seeing is believing

15 Dec 2009

BSkyB will next year roll out 3D television for the first time across its UK and Irish networks, marking a major evolution towards real as real can be TV. Sky gave us an early glimpse of what’s coming.

As we troop into a room festooned with TV sets, one gigantic TV dominates the room. We’ve been promised a first-look at 3D television, a service that Sky intends to deploy across its network beginning in 2010. In the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Hold up, aren’t we just getting used to high definition and things like Blu-ray?”

As my eyes took in the room, I searched for some new magic box. Instead, there was what seemed to be an ordinary flat-screen 50-inch TV and a standard Sky HD set top box. On the table in front of us were what looked like horn-rimmed glasses that Buddy Holly would have been proud of, one of which was darkened over.

Wasting no time, Brian Lenz, director of product design and TV product development, and his colleague John Dorling, made it clear there will be no special 3D set top box, at least not to begin with. “We didn’t want to have to figure out how to bring a new set top box to market and we think the existing HD box is a good platform. From next year a number of high-definition TV models will come with a 3D-ready badge that are capable of recreating the 3D cinema experience.”

Ready, set, watch

We were then invited to place the 3D specs on our heads and the demo began with a series of boxing, football and rugby footage shot last year. Before wearing the glasses, the screen looked blurry, as if a number of images had been overlaid on each other, but once the goggles were on my first reaction to the 3D experience was the sense of intimacy you felt with what was happening on the screen. Rugby in particular stood out and you had the feeling of being on the pitch, the boxing match felt realer than real but for some reason soccer seemed a standard HD experience.

“Basically, what we are doing with the 3D experience is telling the HD box to think that it is showing a regular HD channel but what is happening is while we are showing footage shown with 3D and some 2D content is a left image and a right image. The box doesn’t have to do anything, but what is really happening is the 3D encoding happens at the very beginning and when the signals reach the box it triggers into TV mode.

“The encoding puts odd on even lines and there’s a polarising filter on the TV that matches the odd and even lines with the glasses you are wearing and that’s where the depth perception comes from – it is about recreating what the brain sees and the eyes see.”

Lenz said that Sky made the decision to put the 3D intelligence into its broadcasting system as well as the existing HD boxes so that it could keep as much money in reserve to invest in the content. The company over the past number of years has been increasing the number of HD cameras at sporting events and will now begin adding 3D cameras into the mix. “None of this matters unless the story and the content is compelling, interesting and engaging. We asked ourselves, can we go beyond the wow and gimmick aspect to create a truly immersive entertainment experience. We are testing it across all genres and seeing what content works best.”

Content target

Lenz said that Sky will be targeting mainly events-driven content, like football matches and other key sporting events, and will initially target 3D television at entertainment venues, like clubs and pubs, where people are willing to pay for premium pay-per-view content, such as key World Cup matches.

To illustrate his point about diversity, Lenz showed a rendition of Swan Lake ballet, where the dancers appeared to float out and around the screen. “With 3D, it is possible to take something visually beautiful and take it from 2D to 3D. This draws you in, makes you feel what it’s really like and reveals to the viewer why the ballet has such a magic engagement.” He wasn’t joking, it was impressive and enchanting. “You take something beautiful, it doesn’t degrade and in fact makes it more visually compelling.”

Logistics of where to place cameras at sporting and concert events are currently occupying Lenz and Dorling’s time. “We are still deciding on things like rail cams and adjusting to dynamic events. For 3D to work you need to have two cameras aligned and synchronised. How do you fit two cameras onto a rig where you used to have one? We also need to look at where to place things like the mirror rig and beam splitters. One of the hardest things is filming live events unobtrusively. Season-ticket holders don’t react well to have to watch a camera for the entire game, so we’re figuring out the ideal angles and what and how many cameras we need for events.”

Making it work

Another consideration Lenz said that Sky needs to take into account is switching from 2D to 3D without the viewer really noticing. At the moment what happens is the screen judders. “We have to be careful about cutting too fast. Another thing to bear in mind is visual depth cues, if we aren’t careful you could cause nausea, which woudn’t be good for business.

Lenz demonstrated the complex mechanical formations required in keeping cameras focused during a South Africa versus Saracens rugby match. “3D is more sensitive to lighting and its a real advantage when you have an event that has great lighting and a great scene such as a crowded stadium. Eight out of 20 cameras in future matches will be 3D.”

In terms of graphics on TV, 3D brings many different capabilities to the broadcaster and enhances the viewing experience. Demonstrating a tennis match, a piece of information on one player appeared to the fore of the court while information about the rival player seemed a little further back beside the player, giving the game and its coverage a cinematic feel.”

Lenz confirmed that the 3D television service won’t work on standard HD TVs. “We’re looking at the next replacement cycle where a number of Japanese and Korean manufacturers will be marketing future TVs as 1,080p high-definition TVs that will be 3D-ready.

“There are a number of 3D standards coming out but we are agnostic. One technology will be the active glass technology, where the glasses would electronically synchronise shudder with the TV and then there would be basic glasses that work well with plasma and high refresh rate TVs.”

He explained that a third, more expensive option that Sky won’t be going with – at least not for years – would be auto-stereoscopic 3D TVs that don’t require the user wearing 3D specs at all. “In front of each pixel are digital lenses that magnify the different viewing angles. These would be very expensive TV products that would typically cost up to £15,000 and require a whole new distribution platform that is years away.”

The business end

Explaining the business rationale behind the impending move to 3D TV, Lenz said that Sky will initially sell 3D as a high-value add-on. “We believe most people will move to watch regular TV in high definition, but there will be events that will be compelling enough to watch in 3D. We will be focusing on events and appointment-to-view programming than EastEnders.

“We are trying to get 3D to a point where the economics are negligible and provide us with a lot more options. We aim to introduce services that provide enough revenue to be sure we’re not just adding on as an incremental cost. We are a premium pay TV operator, we don’t need to have millions of subscribers for this to make it into a viable service.

“If you look at the adoption curve for HD and Sky+, we have no reason to believe there will be a similar adoption curve with 3D.

“HD triumphed because there was a strong replacement cycle from CRT TVs to flat screen and plasma models. That said, there are still some 10 million TVs sold every year in the UK and Ireland.

“We forecast sales of 50,000 to 100,000 in the first year. This is not a play we expect to reap immediate benefits from, it’s about the longer term. There are 1.6 million customers on our HD box who, if they go into the store and buy a new 3D-ready TV, they would be potential users.

“The reason we’ve gone aggressively after 3D as we’ve had is we know its a chicken or egg thing. If we waited for the TVs then we know the TVs won’t sell. But if we go in first we could make 3D TV an interesting and viable play.

“We’re going to go first into commercial premises like pubs and clubs. 3D TV is a seeing is believing thing, and much different to the preconceptions of what 3D is. We need people to understand that this is 3D that is not the same as their grandfather’s 3D. This is a cinema experience that is immersive and compelling. The expense has to be justified, though. Saying it is 3D won’t be enough. A bad football game will still be a bad football game.”

“We need people to understand that this is 3D
that is not the same as their grandfather’s 3D.”

– Brian Lenz, director of product design and TV product development

Lenz summed up Sky’s march into 3D as both aggressive but also tentative. “We aren’t announcing our packaging plans just yet but it will have to make commercial sense to us. We don’t want to make adoption of 3D TV too much of a hurdle but at the same time align it with the business objectives of pubs and clubs that adopt it.

“The way we see it playing out – if you buy the active glass solution you’ll by the glasses with the TV but in pubs and clubs low-cost glasses could be used as marketing collateral that will help venue owners to monetise and recoup their investment.

“HD is becoming standard for us – over 15pc of our customers are using it and rising. My personal view is 3D won’t be the same as HD. HD will become a default way of watching television while 3D can make the special moments and high-end experiences better. We won’t go down the road of having 40 3D channels just yet. Instead we’ll have a few premium, appointment-to-view channels where the cream of the crop of content from live sporting and music events to blockbuster movies will feature,” Lenz said.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Sky will initially sell 3D as a high-value add-on.


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years