3-D gives vendors headaches

In this time of broadcaster uncertainty, manufacturers of 3-D production and distribution equipment have been challenged to figure out how to sell their next-generation products to a customer base that doesn’t necessarily want it. At least not right now.

What many manufacturers, such as Miranda Technologies in Montreal, have done is tailor their message to those most interested in launching new 3-D channels by next year. Theoretically, the rest will follow at some point. It’s enough to cause headaches among sales personnel far worse than what some 3-D content elicits.

The first goal of manufacturers is to educate the market about what needs to be done to existing infrastructure to make 3-D broadcasting a reality. Whereas new production tools are required to create the content, legacy servers and automation systems can still be used to distribute it.

“From a production standpoint, 3-D requires new 3Gb/s infrastructure, new cameras, new this, new that and, more importantly, new people in the production suite or mobile production truck,” said Michel Proulx, chief technology officer at Miranda. “3-D is, frankly, only going to be accessible to media giants like Sky, ESPN and Discovery.”

He added that from a playout standpoint, there is no real difference between an HD channel and a 3-D channel. Using frame-compatible techniques, playout centers can air a 3-D channel using the best part of its existing HD infrastructure. A broadcaster simply has fewer channels available on the server to use when distributing 3-D content.

One of the main challenges for vendors right now is to understand the nascent market and develop tools to support it without wasting resources that could be better spent on next-generation HD technology. The question becomes: How much R&D money (percentage) do you dedicate to 3-D at this early stage in its evolution?

“This is a very interesting question,” Proulx said. “Coincidentally, 2010 was the first year that 3-D appeared as a dedicated line item in the R&D budget for three of our four product units. I am not at liberty to say what the actual percentage is in each case; however, I will say that the number is not as high as you might think.”

In the last year, Miranda has modified or upgraded all of the firmware (FPGA programming) or software on its existing HD and 3Gb/s products, including master control systems, routers, multiviewers and signal-processing gear, to accommodate 3-D.

For example, most of Miranda’s infrastructure products support 3Gb/s and HD (1.5Gb/s), which maintains suitability for both full stereoscopic (left and right signals are each HD) and frame-compatible formats (left and right are combined as one HD signal).

All of its Kaleido multiviewers can now provide stereoscopic 3-D monitoring, for both production and playout applications, with the ability to display multiple cameras and programs as 3-D on 3-D displays.

The company’s Densité 3DX-3901 signal-processing card performs all of the necessary conversion to go from full stereoscopic to frame compatible, as well as handling some of the camera alignment issues. And, Miranda’s Imagestore750 master control/channel-branding processor can be used to add downstream graphics on either full 3-D stereoscopic or frame-compatible content.

On the OmniBus side (now owned by Miranda), the iTX system operates as a full playout solution for frame-compatible 3-D with the ability to originate 3-D programs and add downstream branding. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this system has to do with commercial insertion.

“The reality, akin to early HD, is that most of the commercials today are not 3-D at this point,” Proulx said. “The iTX platform detects this situation on a per-clip basis and performs a simple 2-D-to-3-D conversion on the commercials so they, too, are output as frame compatible.”

With most of the R&D work done, Miranda is now extensively teaching existing customers how to use the new tools and waiting for new business to come calling. The problem is that this new business has not materialized because broadcasters are not sure how to make 3-D work within their existing infrastructure. There’s also no clear business model, and broadcasters’ bandwidth is scarce after distributing HD and multiple SD channels. If anything, the emergence of 3-D technology has distracted broadcast customers and perhaps made them hesitant to move ahead with other HD projects. There are still a lot of stations in the United States that are not yet capable of handling HD content.

“Personally, I believe that 3-D is less of a distraction and more of an opportunity for TV engineers to learn new expertise and embark upon new challenges,” Proulx said. “I’d go so far as to say that it has uplifted our customers and provoked new discussions for us to strategize about.”