3DTV Opportunity - Will consumers buy into the saturated promotion by broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers and switch on to 3DTV? And are all the pieces in place for them to enjoy a superior experience? Adrian Pennington’s BSkyB interview leads off our 3D Production Special.
Next month BSkyB launches the world’s first full 3DTV service, initially into pubs to activate consumer awareness, before transmission to the home before the end of the year. Sky’s strategy only formed mid-2008 but it has moved remarkably quickly from concept to production.
“The big question was whether we could get 3D through our existing infrastructure – because if we could suddenly there was a business plan,” explains Brian Lenz, BSkyB director of Product Design & TV Product Development. Sky has 1.6m HD boxes in the field, the majority of which were installed in the past 18 months. “If we had to sell new STBs then the idea wouldn’t fly. If we hadn’t been able to use existing Sky+HD boxes then I think it would just be a novelty on our timeline -- something that we might be doing in the future.”
Sky initially concluded it couldn’t until Chief Engineer Chris Johns alighted upon Hyundai’s polarised 3DTV at NAB 2008 and realised that it was taking in two signals. Early displays using Xpol, a filter applied to the screen surface, enables the reception and decode of side-by-side (1080i, 540 pixel) images compressed to fill one HD frame, without needing to touch the STB.
“Suddenly the light went on,” says Lenz. “You keep it simple and suddenly 3D became viable. We turned the whole thing around in six weeks -- from realising we could do it to getting 3ality to come over and film the Ricky Hatton fight.”
That event in May 2008, filmed in Manchester, convinced Sky executives that a 3D experience would prove an attractive value-added proposition for some subscribers. Pioneering the technology would enhance the broadcaster’s credentials as a leader in home entertainment development, an image that wouldn’t be lost on its customer base and a useful tool for reducing churn.
In hindsight Lenz admits “it was a bit of a punt” but he wanted to see “how close to broadcast quality we could get and make it a genuine option rather than a decision that is fraught with technical complexity and a logistical nightmare.
“We were truly knocked out by the quality we got the first time around,” he adds. “Every time we’ve demonstrated it people move up on the scale of how realistic it is – outright rejectors turn round and remark ‘that’s interesting’, sceptics say ‘wow, when can I have it?’”
New 3DTV ranges from Panasonic, Sony, Samsung and others will also be able to playback Sky 3D as well as full resolution both-eye schemes. Consumers will of course need to purchase a new 3DTV-ready set, most of which require a separate purchase of 3D glasses, and most likely a 3D Blu Ray player to enjoy packaged media. Although CE manufacturers remain tightlipped about the cost of screens ahead of launch they are unlikely to be sub-£2000.
In addition the stakeholders in 3DTV’s success, which range from movies studios to CE manufacturers and payTV broadcasters must be holding their breath that consumers will actually take to wearing the opaque and not universally comfortable glasses, in the home.
By acquiring rights to 3D coverage of the FIFA World Cup as well as backing a 3D channel in-conjunction with Discovery Networks and IMAX, Sony will be able to heavily promote its 3D capability.
As a result of this high-profile promotion, analysts Screen Digest predict a big uptick in sales of 3DTVs, estimating that 13.6m sets will be installed in Europe by 2013. Futurescope suggests 3D-ready TVs will follow the HD-ready model with capable sets in 24% of European households by 2014 and in 45% of US homes. Sony itself states that 50% of its TV’s will ship with 3D by 2013 and even the US’ Consumer Electronics Association made a bullish forecast that 25% of all domestic screens will be sold 3D by as early as 2012. LG however predicts it will sell just 400,000 3DTVs in 2010, a fraction of the 25 million HD sets it will produce
“3D will become a standard feature on TV’s whether people watch 3D content or not,” said Samsung’s Product Manager, Home Platform, Darren Petersen. Samsung’s 3D screens, due next month, feature the ability for the viewer to convert any 2D signal into 3D at the press of a button. “It’s about being future-proofed. Consumers have been buying HD sets for years but not necessarily watching HD content. The same will apply to 3D.”
As Sky has demonstrated so successfully with HD, pay-tv operators have a distinct advantage in being able to monetise the investment in new technology such as this. “We need people to experience it and understand that HD3D is not anaglyph 3D,” Lenz stresses. “When we are 99% confident that everything will work -- and we know what to do with the 1% that may go awry -- that’s when we’ll launch to the home.”
BSkyB may be taking a lead but it is not alone. In Europe, Canal+ has signaled its intent to launch a 3DTV channel as has Finnish broadcaster Welho (reportedly with an autostereoscopic approach). France Telecom’s Orange has been trialing live 3D coverage of French Ligue 1 soccer for over a year. Yet to announce a launch date, it too employs side by side transmission.
Satellite operator Eutelsat ran a 3D channel on EuroBird 9A throughout 2009 in order to analyse the performance of displays, reception equipment and the whole digital transmission chain. Technicolor has built an independent 3D broadcast facility located at Chiswick Park and is ready to offer the service to service providers and broadcast clients.
In the US, DTH platform DirecTV is to unveil 3D channels in June, sponsored by Panasonic, in a bid to jump-start sales of consumer sets. DirecTV HD customers will receive a free software upgrade this summer, allowing them to access the 3D-only channels. The channels will comprise a mix of movies, entertainment and sports; a pay-per-view VOD service and a free 3D sampler channel.
DirecTV is working on future 3D broadcasts by networks including MTV, Fox Sports, CBS, NBC and Turner. These are in addition to a 3D channel of occasional sports programming announced by ESPN and one from Discovery Networks/Imax and Sony. Korea will start trails in 2010 and Japan is expected to react soon too.
“Current satellite capacity is pretty full so a question for Sky is whether the economics stack up in terms of broadcasting a 3D and a 2D version of the same content,” notes Simon Gauntlett, Director of Technology, Digital TV Group. “Although capacity is limited in the terrestrial market, the freeing of spectrum post-DSO could yield capacity for someone to launch a UK 3D DTT service.”
The DTG itself has a watching brief on progress. “Following the DVB’s work we will create a UK profile for 3D standards in a future D-book publication,” he says. “The overall goal is to get broadcasters and manufacturers around a table to agree on what those standards are so that the consumer has a good experience.”
Advocacy group the MPEG Industry Forum (MPEGIF), has formed a 3DTV body to campaign for 3D over MPEG with the aim of furthering the adoption and deployment of MPEG-related standards including MPEG-4 AVC/H.264. “There’s no imminent standards war but there’s a huge amount of confusion on the technical and business sides of the industry caused by a proliferation of proprietary and quasi-proprietary techniques,” says Dr Sean McCarthy, chair of the 3DTV Working Group. “Even within MPEG there are lots of different ways of peeling the fruit.”
“Since the start of the year we’ve seen a really big push because of activity related to 3D cinema, forthcoming 3D Blu-Ray releases and the display side. It’s a question of how we connect the ends. Companies like Tandberg, Harmonic, TDVision and Motorola [whom McCarthy represents] want to be able top provide the best product but that’s to address if there are multiple ways of achieving 3D.”
One of the question marks, he suggests, is whether 3DTV quality is sufficient to satisfy the consumer in the home. “How do you handle programme changes switching between 3D content and [2D] commercials? It may mean that 3D delivered as premium programming is the only possible model right now unless we get to grips with ad-insertion and grooming issues for ad-supported programming to work. Another issue surrounds graphics, subtitling and pop-up overlays.”
“When designing 3D graphics or EPGs you need to add extra depth cues so it doesn’t look paper thin but something with volume to help the brain understand what it is seeing,” says NDS system architect Kevin Murray. “You don’t want animated logos that fly towards you and requires the viewer to duck every time they change channel.”
Fast forwarding 3D also needs to be carefully handled. “We’re playing with interactive, interfaces such as flipping a 3D UI by gesture using infra red sensors,” he says.
While sport and movies will provide the mainstay of 3DTV programming, a diversity of content from documentaries, music and arts, children’s, animations and studio-based entertainment has already been trialed. Critically, ‘good 3D’ content, is vital to the success of these businesses and sport alone is not enough.
As 3D channels come on stream there will be a demand for content that can only be filled by 2D to 3D conversion either of archive content to insert into new material or live broadcast or simply as an inexpensive means of filling a schedule. As ever, some of the claims made for 2D to 3D products, should come with a health warning.
According to Chris Johns, “There is an awful lot of bad 3D out there. Not just in terms of technical production but also in the display of resolution, colour and contrast on some of the new consumer screens.”