Behind Discovery Communications’ 24/7 3-D TV network

In January, Discovery Communications, Sony and IMAX announced they would collaborate to create the first 24/7 3-D TV network in the United States. I recently talked with John Honeycutt, executive vice president and head of international business operations for Discovery, to learn more about the technology behind the 3-D network.

Building out a 3-D TV network

From a distribution point of view, Discovery Communications will provide network origination services from its Sterling, VA, facility that services Discovery, TLC, all of the owned Discovery Networks and BBC America.

The engineering staff will construct the required infrastructure, which will involve tasks like modifying the video servers, among others. The biggest single thing on the collective mind of Discovery’s engineering team is the display technology and how the facility will display 3-D to provide quality viewing for the operators.

For post production, the network will create content at various facilities, including its Silver Spring, MD, building, which houses about 50 file-based suites. That facility will be expanded to handle the 3-D content.

On the production side, cameras are another key component to the success of the 3-D network. Discovery has a working relationship with manufacturers to develop the next generation of cameras. “You may have seen at CES [or NAB] a new camera that Panasonic is working on that will provide a dual-lens, single-body situation,” Honeycutt says.

Discovery has also worked with Sony on the development of camera technology. Camera technology has been a large focus because the style of Discovery’s content can require the use of multiple cameras — everything from large, shoulder-mount cameras to small, handheld cameras. Honeycutt says cameras are typically attached to a rig, a physical device that puts the cameras in sync technically and ensures they’re aligned.

That style works for scripted TV and for single-camera, static and scripted content. However, for the style of content that Discovery produces, portability — the ability to move the camera quickly and efficiently — is key.

This is why it’s important for a conversation to exist between manufacturers and broadcasters about what technology is needed to produce 3-D content. “It’s got to be an evolution as we start to create content,” Honeycutt says.

Discovery has a long history of working with technology manufacturers to develop products that work for its needs. For example, the broadcaster makes annual trips to Japan to work with engineers in the research and development lab to ensure the technology is being produced to fit its style of content creation.

Back here at home, Discovery’s research and development lab in Silver Spring receives prototypes of new technology that go through a series of technical and functionality tests.

“Given the style of content, you can imagine, we shoot everything from something like ‘Deadliest Catch,�� where, literally, the camera operators are in harm’s way, on a boat with waves; that takes a certain kind of camera. However, we also shoot shows like the ‘Life’ series, which is all about ensuring it is the utmost quality and the highest-resolution image capture.”

Discovery’s production style ranges from one end to the other, so ensuring that the right series of tools are in place is critical for the success of the 3-D network.

Consumer adoption of 3-D technology

To even watch Discovery’s 3-D network, consumers must purchase a new TV set capable of decoding and displaying 3-D signals and will need to wear glasses. Today’s 3-D technology is not glassless or autostereoscopic TV yet, but Honeycutt thinks glassless 3-D could happen in about five years.

“We’ve seen prototypes of autostereoscopic TV, but there are issues. There are sweet spots in the displays that need to be dealt with. And that’s really just an issue of being able to pack that many pixels and that much capability into [the technology],” he says.

Standards are another issue that may influence consumer adoption of 3-D technology. Groups such as CableLabs and the 3D@Home Consortium are working to release their own standards for various aspects of 3-D creation, whereas others already have. For example, the Blu-ray Disc Association recently announced a standard for its platform, which may encourage the downloading of upcoming Hollywood movies through various online platforms such as Netflix.

Regarding the home set-top box, the industry is working toward an environment in which legacy STBs don’t need to be replaced. In Honeycutt’s opinion, this will be critical to adoption; otherwise, it will require the MSOs and the providers to invest in a new generation of STBs and incur an extra cost from the consumer to replace their existing boxes.

Recently, Panasonic and DIRECTV announced that DIRECTV’s current generation of high-end HD STBs will be able to pass a 3-D signal to Panasonic’s VIERA HD 3-D TV set. Starting in June, DIRECTV HD subscribers will receive a free software upgrade to view three 3-D channels as well as ESPN 3-D. Harmonic’s Electra encoders, capable of supporting frame-compatible 3-D video, will serve as the compression engine for the DIRECTV 3-D video experience.

The quality of 3-D on your TV

Discovery intends to deliver its 3-D service in the same bandwidth that an HD service takes today. The question remains: How can this be done without a loss of quality?

There’s a methodology called side by side, or over/under frame compatible, Honeycutt says. It takes a left-eye and a right-eye image and shoots them both at half resolution. When they’re married back together, it creates a full-resolution, 1920 x 1080 image. In the future there is an opportunity to deliver a full-res left-eye and a full-res right-eye image at 1920 x 1080p, but this will require more bandwidth.

Other methodologies also are being developed. One of them is called multiview coding. It takes a full left-eye image and then takes metadata from the right-eye image and delivers it at about one-and-a-half times the bandwidth required. Then the image is either reconstructed in the STB or in the display. This methodology would require infrastructure upgrades, so the long-term conversation for Discovery is to weigh which method is better.

What content works for 3-D TV

Consumers should realize that not everything works in 3-D. “You’re not going to watch every hour that we produce in 3-D, and you’re not going to watch reruns of old syndicated shows in 3-D,” Honeycutt says.

The 3-D platform works best for viewers looking for a unique experience — one that enables them to engage, satisfy curiosity and immerse themselves in a viewing experience, he says.

“You have to realize that in the end, 3-D is not a technology. It’s a manipulation of your brain to provide an artificial perception of depth, and there are certain shows that just won’t do that,” he says.

Some people may have a negative experience with 3-D. For instance, people who have visually induced motion sickness. That means certain shows, such as those with a lot of high motion and choppy camera work, may not be the best experience in 3-D.

Discovery has not yet decided which shows it will produce in 3-D. “If you can imagine, anything that has good motion and good immersion, things like explosions or things scientific in nature” are the types of programs Honeycutt says would work best for Discovery’s 3-D lineup. These are compelling because they give the consumer another view or another opportunity to see those images in 3-D.


As Discovery builds out its facilities to support the new 3-D network, Broadcast Engineering will continue to keep you posted about the types of technology and methods used.