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Industry Forging Ahead With 3D Amid Questions

It's been two years now since Quantel almost single-handedly ignited the stereo 3D flame with a bravura performance in the Krasnapolsky Ballroom in Amsterdam during IBC2007. In that brief demo in front of a fairly heavy-hitting audience by anybody's estimation, 3D went from 1950s and 1970s gimmick to a serious 21st century proposition and, if anything, the momentum behind it has only grown since.

The initial excitement undoubtedly surrounded cinema releases. The number of worldwide digital 3D screens has grown from 1,300 in 2007 to just under 7,000 this year and will double to approximately 14,000 in the next three years, with over 50 percent of them in North America.

Tickets for 3D screenings are more expensive — a matter of increasing annoyance to some of the movie-going community — but that helps them earn more per screen. In Italy, for instance, 27 percent of the total screens "Monsters Vs Aliens" was shown on were 3D, but they accounted for a whopping 56 percent of total takings in the country. No surprise that somewhere in the region of 30 3D titles are planned for release in 2009.

Indeed, it's hard to conceive of a modern, animated release not getting a simultaneous 3D/2D release. But while cinema drove the initial interest in 3D, what has caused a ripple to become a tsunami has been the prospect of 3DTV. This — the prospect of 3D bursting out of a TV screen near you sometime soon — is a goal that unites broadcasters and manufacturers on all sides of the spectrum, though whether it's truly the Holy Grail or just the mythical pot of gold at the rainbow's end is a bit soon to say yet.

Certainly the amount of activity in the field suggests companies are chasing the Grail Hypothesis with gusto, with hardly a day going past without some production company or broadcaster trumpeting a new venture in the format. In the United Kingdom, satellite broadcaster BSkyB is driving the market, with a whole host of OB companies reportedly taking part in tests for the company throughout the summer (and, with 3 Gbps trucks rolling out, incidentally reporting few problems: "We can do 3D right now," commented one OB head).

While BSkyB is by no means alone — ITV and the BBC have also undertaken trials — it increasingly appears it will be the first to launch a dedicated 3DTV service in the United Kingdom using its existing HD set-top boxes in conjunction with glasses, perhaps as soon as the end of the year.

By doing this it's making quite an audacious land grab and very much running ahead of the bodies trying to establish 3DTV standards, most of which are ultimately aiming at future glasses-free technologies. The SMPTE, for instance, is not expecting to publish its 3D Home Master specification until mid 2010 at the earliest. This, and similar actions by other broadcasters around the world — most of whom are pay-TV operators — is helping to contribute to a lot of uncertainty over the implementation of the format. The U.K.'s Digital TV Group (DTG) recently published a survey, which highlighted questions over standards.

To quote from the report: "Some members fear de facto, non-open standards, for first-generation broadcast 3DTV will result from the technology decisions made by first providers. These are likely to be pay-TV operators, keen to differentiate their platform and consumer proposition. Technology decisions made by these players may not suit the current or future needs of free-to-air broadcasters."

Nor indeed satisfy anyone. Screen Digest has predicted that with a global standard, 3DTV sets could account for 16 percent of global TV sales by 2015. Without one, that figure will only reach 3 percent, an annual shortfall of over 2 billion units.

Another area of concern is the psychophysiological effect of 3D, with 69 percent of the DTG survey's respondents saying more research was required into such issues as eye strain, headaches and possible health and safety issues. The broadcasters, meanwhile, are looking at the amount of 3D content available and wondering exactly what to fill all that potential airtime with; and BSkyB is already admitting that the lack of 3D programming is liable to be the major factor delaying any prospective launch date. There are also questions of what that content should be. Arts and sports programming have dominated the tests so far, but concerns are starting to be raised about the problems of shooting sports, in particular in a live, uncontrolled, open-air environment with current kit. Even its proponents agree that the edit cut rate and overall number of cameras would have to be reduced, making 2D/3D simulcast productions an interesting problem.

None of this is slowing momentum judging from the blizzard of activity surrounding 3D, and the IBC conference programme is packed with sessions looking at 3D, both in the cinema and at home. What will be on the show floor is a bit more of a mystery, as companies seem to be playing their cards closer to their chests than ever this year in the teeth of the global recession. 3D post tools are already reaching maturity, but the weak link in the production chain as it stands is definitely at the acquisition end, so expect more along the line of the twin-lens Panasonic P2 from the big manufacturers and less of the homebrew lash-ups.

Getting back to the DTG report, only 14 percent of the members it surveyed said that the business case for 3DTV had been successfully made, largely due to the difficulty of forecasting consumer acceptance of an emerging technology and its potential take-up. And, even more interesting perhaps, a recent IABM/Devoncroft Partners survey had 3DTV languishing in eleventh place in a survey of technology trends that will have an impact on the industry over the next two to three years.

Perhaps the industry is looking in the wrong direction. Sony demonstrated 3D games on the PS3 earlier this year to some fairly widespread jaw-dropping, and not only is the games market as early-adopter as they come, but gamers are also used to paraphernalia — it's difficult to see anyone objecting to donning a pair of glasses for an hour long frag-fest on a games console — stereo 3D CG production is well-established, and in Blu-ray 3D games already have the perfect delivery medium. In other words, 3DTV might truly be the Holy Grail after all, but it could be located at the end of somebody else's rainbow.