Broadcasters will avoid 3D like the flu

The battle for stereoscopic TV delivered to the home just got hotter this month as key players began staking out territory in what promises to be the next VHS-Beta war for supremacy.

A study from the CEA and Entertainment and Technology Center at the University of Southern California claims that 3D is a growing force. The survey shows that 16 percent of respondents wanted 3D films and 14 percent wanted 3D video games. More than 50 percent said they would be willing to wear 3D glasses. Fifteen percent of the respondents said they would be willing to pay a 25 percent premium for a 3D television set.

Despite the supportive results, another study, this one done by In-Stat, puts a different spin on 3D. The company’s research says that while 64 percent of consumers surveyed expressed at least some interest in 3D content, 25 percent said they would not pay a premium for a 3D television set. Even more, 33 percent, said they would not pay more for 3D DVDs.

This is getting to sound a lot like the early HDTV arguments.

Then we have the set makers like Panasonic and Sony announcing new 3D-compatible displays. Panasonic recently demonstrated its new 50in full HD 3D plasma display panel (PDP) with accompanying high precision active shutter glasses.

The 50in PDP uses Panasonic's newly-developed high-speed 3D drive technology that enables rapid illumination of pixels while maintaining brightness. The panel also incorporates a crosstalk reduction technology, which claims to minimize double-image (ghosting) that occurs when left- and right-eye images are alternately displayed. Plasma displays typically provide excellent video response with motion, and Panasonic says this TV set does so at full 1080-line resolution. The television is designed to be used with the company’s new high-precision active shutter glasses. The glasses use a precise technology to maintain synchronization with the glasses’ active shutters and the left- and right-eye images shown on the PDP.

A block diagram of Panasonic’s vision of what it calls “Full HD 3D World” is shown in Figure 1 to the right. The content creation process begins with a Panasonic twin-lens P2 professional camera recording 1920 x 1080, MPEG-4 AVC files. The content is mastered and then duplicated onto a 3D Blu-ray disc for playback and finally displayed on the 3D PDP frame sequential display at 1920 x 1080. Hence, Panasonic’s term “full HD.” Panasonic’s 3D implementation includes key components: from dual-channel cameras to full HD 1080 x 1920 displays in the home.

In addition, Panasonic recently announced its collaboration with Twentieth Century Fox Film and Lightstorm Entertainment on the global promotion of director James Cameron’s film "AVATAR." This will be the first live-action 3D movie to be released when it hits screens on Dec. 18, 2009. As the film’s exclusive audio-visual partner, Panasonic has provided some of its latest A/V technology to help create the film, which will debut in theaters worldwide in both 2D and 3D. As part of the collaboration agreement, Panasonic will launch a global advertising campaign tied to "AVATAR," which will promote numerous Panasonic A/V products, including 3D.

Sony is also staking claim to the 3D space. In late August, Sony's CEO Howard Stringer delivered a short presentation at the IFA technology trade show in Berlin about the company’s 3D future. In it, he highlighted two areas he says Sony will focus on. They include 3D, both in the theater and in the home, and networked devices.

Regarding 3D, Stringer said, "3D is clearly on its way to the mass market. There are a variety of issues yet to be addressed, but the 3D train is on the track, and Sony is set to drive it home." In addition to making more 3D movies, Stringer promised more 3D-capable Blu-ray players, VAIO laptops, and PlayStation 3 game consoles.

The company announced that it would release a 3D-compatible BRAVIA LCD TV in 2010. The set will use a frame sequential display, active-shutter glasses and Sony's proprietary high frame rate technology. The set will enable the reproduction of what the company is calling full HD high-quality 3D images, and will form the centerpiece of Sony's 3D entertainment experience for the home.

Unfortunately, a clean launch of 3D is a bit cloudy. Not surprisingly, there's the very real prospect of another VHS/Beta-like format battle ahead. On the one hand, certain key broadcasters (like the UK's BSkyB) want to use existing transmission technologies, while some in the TV set industry (like Panasonic) are aiming at what they call "full 3D," which requires twin 1080p display technology operating with high refresh rates.

One unmeasured factor in 3D implementation is that both Panasonic and Sony play pivotal roles in the production of entertainment content. Both companies manufacture cameras, which can be used in 3D productions. Their efforts in the live, sports and theatrical content arenas will drive content makers to produce in 3D. And Sony is highly tied to the gaming market, which by all accounts, may see the first wide-scale 3D rollout.

Theatres are already promoting 3D content. With more than a 5000 digital screens today, the total is expected to reach 7000 by year-end. About 2000 are currently 3D-capable.

For home applications, it will come down to the cost of TV sets. According to Paul Gagnon, director of North American TV research for DisplaySearch, once the 3D Blu-ray standards are approved, the industry will have a green light to move forward. According to him, the number of 3D-enabled TV sets will grow from less than 2 million in 2010 to 12 million in 2013.

So, where does this leave broadcasters? Let’s look at some facts.

• Broadcasters have spent billions building out the HD transition. And where is the ROI? There is none.

• Revenues are down 20 percent, and the ad marketplace recovery will be slow by all estimates.

• Many broadcasters are still in survival a mode. Any engineering manager suggesting investment in 3D does so at great career risk.

• The cost to build a 3D broadcast facility would be huge — again with no ROI.

• There is no 3D Blu-ray standard: no standard, no content, no adoption, no consumer demand.

Admittedly, 3D is an effective movie theatre and gaming differentiation. However, for the foreseeable future, it is not a broadcast product. I expect that broadcasters are going to run away from 3D like someone from the flu.