3-D technology finds few enthusiasts at IBC2010

How important is 3-D TV production and signal delivery to the vendors who supply the required technology to broadcasters? At last week’s IBC2010 show in Amsterdam, it was clear that it depended upon whom you spoke to and whether their respective parent company has a vested interest in selling 3-D TV sets to consumers.

In fact, several broadcasters and manufacturer executives at the show said they see 3-D as a technology in search of an application and, in many cases, a sign of desperation to find new markets for existing products. While digital cinema events are certainly a good start, getting a true stereoscopic signal into homes across Europe looks to be a daunting task.

“I don't understand why manufacturers are pushing a technology that not many people, broadcasters or consumers, want right now in their home,” said the chief technology officer at a major multichannel service provider in Israel (who asked not to be named). “Broadcasters in Europe are finally seeing a mature market for HDTV, now we’re being asked to build a whole new infrastructure when our customers are not asking for it. I think 3-D TV will take time to penetrate the market in any real numbers, and that time is not right now.”

Both prototype and shipping 3-D production technologies were on display on the exhibit stands of Panasonic and Sony, which have both been the technology’s biggest champions to date (even though many reports have Samsung selling the most 3-D TVs).

At IBC both wanted customers to know that they have end-to-end product lines that are ready when broadcasters and production professionals are. And there were some takers. Presteigne Charter, a well-known production services and equipment rental company in the UK, placed an order at the show for a significant amount of Sony 3-D gear — including 3-D processors, HD cameras, LCD monitors and HD video production switchers.

“Following high-profile 3-D format trials this summer, we believe that the media and broadcast sector is at a tipping point,” said Michael Ransome, managing director of Presteigne Charter. “It’s now critical that we build momentum for 3-D content production across the industry.”

Panasonic said it had taken 800 preorders for its AG-3DA1 3D camcorder since it was announced earlier this year. The camcorder began shipping in late August. Roughly 16 percent of inquiries about the AG-3DA1 have come from broadcast organizations, according to Jerome Berrard, director of Panasonic AV Systems Europe.

He said Panasonic has ambitious growth goals for the stereoscopic 3-D cameras, switchers, signal processors and monitors it now offers, although the company is also looking to solid-state memory (e.g., its P2 product line) and high-quality codecs to increase its bottom line revenue.

Other major manufacturers, however, were not so forthcoming in their confidence for the potential success of 3-D broadcasting, but nonetheless showed how its technology could be used when the market is ready.

Ray Baldock, vice president for strategic marketing at Grass Valley, said that before the company commits valuable resources to getting the format into consumers’ homes, broadcast customers “need to see a business model that works.”

Jeff Rosica, senior vice president of Grass Valley, was more direct during his company's press conference when he said, “We’re not trying to sell TVs. We believe that 3-D will be a niche market for some time to come.”

Of course, that didn't stop Grass Valley from featuring a full display of a typical 3-D workflow using its HD cameras (two of its LDK 8300 HD Super SloMo cameras were featured on a 3Ality beam splitter rig), production switchers and servers. A monitor displayed live, slow motion 3-D imagery of its on-stand set.

To see a demo video of Grass Valley’s 3-D cameras, visit the Broadcast Engineering TV site.

Harris Broadcast Communications also showed a variety of HD products that can easily be reconfigured for 3-D production, even while its president, Harris Morris, referred to the various live 3-D telecasts it has been involved in thus far (such as the first NHL hockey game on MSG Networks in March and other events in Australia and Canada) as “experiments.”

“The good news for us is that most of our infrastructure gear is fairly optimized for 3-D,” Morris said. “You can take today’s HD gear, test and trial 3-D on it, and not be left with something that, should you decide not to do it or do it in a different way, is kind of stranded. What we’re trying to do is enable smart, cost-effective experimentation and then help the industry monitor what works. We also want to help capture the lessons learned. The medium is in its infancy, and production crews are still learning [the best techniques], but we’re trying to enable those cost-effective experiments.”

Among a number of products, Harris showed new control panels and a built-in stereoscopic frame synchronizer for its platinum routing switcher series, as well as 3-D capability across its Nexio servers and Velocity HD editing systems.

Harris also demonstrated 3-D over DVB-2 at its booth.

In general, hundreds of companies at the IBC Show took a “you have to have a 3-D story to attract new business,” approach to their exhibit stand presentations.

However, while these companies were displaying technology you could put your hands on, others were left wondering how they fit in. Vendors of subtitling and closed-captioning systems, for example, like SoftNI and Softel, were scratching their heads trying to figure out how to present stable data on a 3-D screen when there is no standard within the industry.

What is clear is that a lot of time, energy and money has been invested in the nascent 3-D market, and it looks like that won't go away anytime soon.

Perhaps Nicolas Bourdon, marketing and communications director for EVS said it best when he stated, “A lot of people want 3-D so badly that it almost seems a desperate attempt to stimulate a market that has been in the downturn for the past 18 months or so. Can we offer products to people who want them [such as the six-channel EVS XT2 server that can be used for four channels of 3-D clip playback and other applications]? Sure. Do we want to force our customers to do things they are not ready to do? Absolutely not. 3-D is the latest thing, but it’s not necessarily the best thing to make broadcasters successful in their businesses.”

Or maybe Steve Schklair, CEO of 3Ality, during his keynote speech at the conference, got it right when he compared experiments on television using an anaglyph 3-D system in the 1990s with today’s “compelling” content requirements. If the industry can't produce enough shows and events — besides what’s in 2-D — for people want to watch, then 3-D TV won't be successful.

He said, “If 3-D content is not compelling, then the technology will disappear again.”

Of note: According to the IBC, this year’s IBC Show attracted 48,164 international attendees, an increase of roughly 5 percent over last year’s convention.