Seeing really is believing – 3D TV will take broadcasting to a new dimension

14 Jan 2010

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In a bold move, BSkyB is about to deploy 3D TV for the first time across its Irish and UK networks.

As we troop into a room festooned with TV sets, one gigantic TV dominates. 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 (HD) and things like Blu-ray?"

As my eyes take in the room I search for some new magic box. Instead there’s what seems to be an ordinary flat-screen 50-inch TV and a standard Sky HD set-top box. On the table in front of us are what look like horn-rimmed glasses that Buddy Holly would have been proud of.

Wasting no time, Brian Lenz, director of product design and TV product development, and his colleague John Dorling make 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 (2010) a number of HD TV models will come with a 3D-ready badge that are capable of recreating the 3D cinema experience.”

Sense of intimacy

We are then invited to place the 3D specs on our heads and the demo begins with a series of boxing, football and rugby footage. Before wearing the glasses, the screen looks blurry as if a number of images have been overlaid on each other, but once the goggles are on my first reaction to the 3D experience is the sense of intimacy you feel with what is happening on the screen.

“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 we are showing footage with some 3D and some 2D content. 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,” explains Lenz.

“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.”

He says Sky will be targeting mainly events-driven content, such as 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.

Lenz shows a rendition of a Swan Lake ballet where the dancers appear 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.”

Camera placement

Logistics of where to place cameras at sporting and concert events are currently occupying Lenz’s time. “We are still deciding on things such as 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? One of the hardest things is filming live events unobtrusively. Season ticket holders don’t react well to having 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.”

He confirms 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 1080p HD 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 shutter glasses would electronically synchronise with the TV and then there would be basic glasses that work well with plasma and high refresh rate TVs.”

Lenz explains that a third, more expensive option that Sky won’t be going with – at least not for years – will be auto-stereoscopic 3D TVs that don’t require the user to wear 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.”

Explaining the business rationale behind the impending move to 3D TV, he says Sky will initially sell 3D as a high-value add-on. “We believe most people will move to watch regular TV in HD, but there will be events that will be compelling enough to watch in 3D.

“We are trying to get 3D to a point where the economics are negligible and provide us with a lot more options for content. 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 buy a new 3D-ready TV, would be potential users.

“The reason we’ve gone aggressively after 3D is we know it’s a chicken or egg thing. If we wait for the TVs to be ready then we know the TVs won’t sell. But if we go in first, we could make 3D TV an interesting and viable play.”

Sky’s outlook

Lenz sums up Sky’s march into 3D as both aggressive and 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 the pubs and clubs that adopt it.

“The way we see it playing out – if you buy the active glass solution you’ll buy 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.

“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,” he adds.

By John Kennedy

Photo: A visual revolution: how Sky will deliver its 3D television experience to the masses

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com