Talk about a technology that refuses to accept no for an answer; welcome to yet another incarnation of 3-D as an entertainment viewing medium. From parlor stereoscopes at the beginning of the last century, to the stereoscopic photography craze in the early 1940s, to the spate of 3-D films produced in the 1950s, each generation has been subjected to yet another rebirth, along with the dazzle and hype, of 3-D. And, there's always the same question: Will it stick this time?
Making 3-D a reality
Our European colleagues believe it will. British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) announced the launch of a Sky 3-D channel in 2010. As we have seen with our own recent experience with HDTV, there is always the chicken and egg dilemma of available content vs. set penetration. Recognizing the lesson that content availability drives set penetration, BSkyB's strategy is initially to also make the channel available in theaters, particularly for sporting events. The belief is that such exposure to 3-D content will help further drive the uptake of 3-D home receivers. Not to mention, cinema distribution will provide an initial revenue stream to BSkyB while awaiting set penetration in its subscriber base. Morgan David, R&D at Sony Professional Europe, said that in five years, the majority of European viewers will be watching 3-D TV at home.
In Asia, 3-D broadcasts are already a reality. In Japan, Nippon BS Broadcasting's BS11 3-D satellite station has been broadcasting in 3-D since 2008, and many Japanese cable systems now include segments of 3-D content in their program schedules. Korea plans to begin a satellite 3-D service in 2011, with terrestrial broadcasts to commence in 2012. The London Olympics seems to be taking on the mantra of becoming the unofficial watershed event for 3-D broadcasting, as several broadcasters plan to have some level of 3-D broadcast capability in conjunction with the 2012 Olympics.
TV set manufacturers have the most to gain, so it's no wonder Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba have announced new 3-D-capable receivers. HDTV is now reaching the point of maturity that more new receiver sales are being driven by feature enhancements as opposed to the necessity of replacement, as was the scenario in the analog-to-digital transition. By the end of 2008, one-third of all U.S. households had at least one HDTV receiver — a penetration level that was double the previous year.
When the 2009 stats become available, it is expected that the penetration rate will have easily doubled again, especially given the unprecedented rate of decline in set prices during the year. Thus, in this digitally enabled era of technological leapfrog, it is not surprising for the receiver manufacturers to be looking for the next replacement technology. Feature enhancements to the existing base technology platform are fine, but nothing drives demand and higher profits like replacement.
No new technology is complete without the potential for a standards war. There are four basic methods in popular use today for generating 3-D imagery. The first is anaglyphic, which uses inexpensive red-cyan glasses. This was used for the Superbowl commercial and an episode of “Chuck,” which both aired in 3-D on NBC earlier this year. Another technology that uses low-cost glasses is polarized 3-D, which can be viewed with polarized lenses. A more complicated technology is frame sequencing, where right-eye left-eye information is contained in alternate frames and requires the use of shuttered lenses for viewing. Lastly, there is glassless viewing technology or autostereoscopy.
Several geopolitical industry organizations, such as the China 3D Industry Association (C3D), Japan's 3D Consortium, Korea's 3D Fusion Industry Consortium (3DFIC) and 3D@Home in the United States, are involved in some form of the standardizations process. And, SMPTE has a task force charged with defining standards for 3-D home display, which hopefully will bring order and consistency to the process.
The stickiness factor
So, if 3-D really does stick this time, how will this impact the broadcaster? For distribution and transmission, that DTV infrastructure that you just spent millions on upgrading will nicely accommodate a 3-D bit stream. You may have to budget for some encoders, decoders and display devices, but you won't need to spend anywhere near the likes of the upgrade from analog to digital. However, to actually produce 3-D content, welcome to a new world.
To answer my original question: Will it stick this time? For PC gaming and digital signage applications, it probably will. For 3-D HD in the home, there are still a lot of issues, not the least of which is the significant number people who report headaches, dizziness or nausea after prolonged 3-D viewing. David's aggressive prediction is not surprising for a company selling TV receivers, but this is still a technology that under Japan's 3D Consortium fostered a “3-D Stereoscopic Brain Training Working Group.”
Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.
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