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The Year of 3D?

Andy Stout is a frequent contrubitor to TV Technology Europe.

While stereo 3D grabbed industry headlines in 2010, arguably a bigger story was that the global economy finally shuddered back to life. It’s not a done deal, nor is it a return to the dizzying growth rates of previous decades, but it is a return to liquidity and a return to investment.

Certainly it helped invigorate the last IBC in September, which posted its second highest attendance figures ever..Reliably hype-driven as ever, the show was all about 3D and its golden future. But is that future one of proper gold or simply pyrite glistening on the rocks?

The amount of activity is fairly astonishing for a format that was still on the drawing board a little over a year ago. Estimates are that around 50 broadcasters are involved in stereo 3D worldwide, most operating in the pay-TV arena, with 20 in the throes of launching actual specialised 3D channels and the others either in the planning stages or conducting significant trials.

It does tick a lot of boxes. Box one: the pipeline is undoubtedly there, with the technology now firmly production proven after a summer of sport that stretched from the FIFA World Cup in South Africa to the Ryder Cup in Wales, though the single chassis cameras that everyone’s waiting for still need work according to most early adopters.

Box two: the content is coming too, albeit slowly, and with perhaps more 2D to 3D conversion now being planned than anyone would initially have wished for.

And box three: even the sets are slowly dropping down to a price that could be considered affordable by anyone who didn’t want to take out a mortgage and suffer a credit reference to buy one, prepared to sell a Samsung 46-inch model at time of writing for US$1200.

However, business is not about the number of boxes ticked while working down a spreadsheet, it’s about the total highlighted at the bottom. 2011 is the crunch year for 3DTV, as it’s the year when broadcasters get to assess the only real statistic that matters: how many people are donning the glasses and watching. And there are some indications that the Emperor’s new clothes might be getting a bit frayed round the edges already. At the recent CES, some visitors noticed an increased coolness to the format from set manufacturers, who instead were pumping Connected TV, and recently conducted US market research suggests that 23% of people are interested in 3DTV before seeing a demonstration, but only 12% retain their ardour afterwards.

Admittedly, against this you have to measure the continued popularity of the format in cinemas at least, and also the slow emergence of glasses-free displays. But what 3DTV really needs is a shop window, a global event where the entire world watches, to define it. HD had Beijing 2008, will 3D have London 2012?

At best the answer is a qualified maybe. The signals are impressively mixed. The manufacturers, with Panasonic leading the charge, are all over it and promising great things, but Olympic Broadcasting Services’ Manolo Romero is cautious, on record as saying that OBS might experiment with recording some events (notably the opening ceremony in 3D) but not as yet seeing any great demand from broadcasters for 3D.

And while pay-TV leads the development and deployment of the format, it has to be admitted that that is unlikely to change any time soon. Indeed, the national broadcasters might well be concentrating their efforts elsewhere. One of the subplots from last year was that there’s a definite buzz building around Augmented Reality, where graphics overlays impart information to the viewer. This, of course, has been done before (the ill-fated etc), but previous systems succumbed to the twin lacks of bandwidth and processing grunt. Now these are less of an issue, and every AV product worth its salt ships with either an Ethernet or wireless connection. As CES illustrated, developments in this area could be rapid.

Then, of course, there’s Super Hi-Vision, which, lest we forget, couples a mammoth 7680 x 4320 resolution with 22.2 audio, and has made the same sort of astounding progress in the past couple of years as 3D has, albeit lagging a couple of years behind. Developers NHK talk confidently of location-based installations in the here and now and test broadcasts beginning in 2015, which is too late for the next Olympics but bang on time for the one after.

And finally, a recent BBC/NHK test transmission from London to Japan even looked into the prospect of combing the two formats, using ten HD cameras to add a third dimension to a SHV stream. It seems the perfect technology to back for those that like to hedge their bets, though maybe we’d better just double check that that recession is truly over with first...