SMPTE prepares for 3-D to the home

While the debate continues on whether consumers are willing to buy new HDTV sets and wear funky glasses in their living rooms to view 3-D content, the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) is preparing for the future of television.

The success of stereoscopic 3-D technology for feature films in movie theaters over the past year has prompted a growing discussion within the broadcast industry — including everyone from terrestrial networks to Internet-only content providers — to figure out how to bring those high-resolution, bandwidth-hungry movies and special events to consumers' homes. The recent NAB convention featured numerous panels and technology papers dedicated to it.

In the middle of this discussion is the SMPTE organization, which formed a special task force last summer representing multiple industries, from consumer electronics manufacturers to the brightest broadcast engineers, to look into it. They comprise what Wendy Aylsworth, vice president of engineering for SMPTE, called the largest collection of individuals working on a task force within SMPTE.

Aylsworth oversees all of the organization's standards development, including the group that, over the past six months, investigated how to get 3-D into the living room. Their exhaustive report, entitled "Report of SMPTE Task Force on 3D to the Home," details several different scenarios for delivering and viewing 3-D content in the home — from over-the-air broadcast to high-capacity removable media, including a new generation of dual-sided Blu-ray DVD.

The task force's mission was to define what standards would be needed to establish the adoption of stereoscopic A/V content from content mastering to consumption in the home via multiple types of distribution channels There's also talk of downconverting 3-D content to support display on portable and mobile devices.

The group started in August of 2008 and at the NAB show in April released its report, which has been published and is available on the SMPTE Web site. The development of a "home master" that would be distributed after post production is the first step in the 3-D broadcast chain.

The home master would be used to extract different formatted versions for all of the various distribution platforms now available (including broadband and fixed media). It would also provide a reference to help broadcasters understand what type of content they are getting and how it should be handled. The goal is to have the resolution and synchronized images look as good in the home as they do on a monitor in post production.

Now, the next step for SMPTE is to gather industry consensus on the report and begin the process for creating a universal standard. SMPTE members are encouraged to download the SMPTE requirements report and provide feedback.

Aylsworth said that there is a combination of market forces that are now driving the need for a set of defined specifications for how to produce and distribute content that can be viewed either with special polarized glasses or without. Interest has come from both movie studios in programmed content and broadcasters in "special events" for live sports and entertainment telecasts. A number of real-world trials to theaters thus far have resulted in positive viewer feedback, albeit it with little real profit for those involved.

"The current success of 3-D movies in the theater the past year has been one of the biggest reasons why the [entertainment] industry is interested in bringing this excitement into the home," Aylsworth said. "The technology for producing 3-D content has been around for a while, in various forms, but in the past there have been difficulties getting the right combination of technology and human visual systems to perceive 3-D comfortably. That was true in the film analog world. The digital cinema world has caused a lot of those issues to go away and we're seeing consumers really taking a liking to 3-D content."

Virtually everyone involved in the broadcast chain, from content creation to compression and on to the home, was represented on the SMPTE 3-D task force. SMPTE's role now is to get the conversation started, focus on a number of the details associated with the various broadcast steps along the way, and ultimately define a 3-D home master content standard. Defining the requirements for a 3-D home master was a critical first step.

Aylsworth said she's spoken to many organizations that are waiting to see if one technology platform catches on before they commit their content and economic resources to 3-D.

"What's become clear is that it's important to have a standard way of producing 3-D content so that everyone around the world can set up an infrastructure to handle it," she said. "If we don't have a standard established, we would end up with proprietary solutions based on different assumptions. This would cause the market to become fragmented, which would in turn result in a more protracted and difficult rollout of a 3-D service."

However, the infrastructure for getting 3-D into the home is still a long way from being a mature and reliable system. Most content providers (e.g., cable, satellite, telco and terrestrial) are currently working with a 1.5Gb/s pipeline that is inadequate for 3-D unless a lot of compression is applied.

"I think the broadcast channels have some unique challenges in terms of both their bandwidth and methods of distribution, which have been developed over many years to handle 2-D viewing," Aylsworth said. "Those distribution platforms might lag a bit in terms of transmitting 3-D, but the use of optical media is very promising right now and industry-wide adoption is just around the corner."

She said that after movie theaters, subscription-based TV providers, including the Internet, would probably be the next adopters of 3-D. For free, over-the-air broadcasting, the challenge is ensuring that anybody who's receiving that 3-D signal but doesn't have a 3-D-capable set will still be able to watch it in 2-D.

"Terrestrial broadcast is a bit more challenging because that infrastructure is the oldest and there's a bit more legacy infrastructure to deal with, but 3-D to the home is still viable for over-the-air broadcasters in the future," Aylsworth said. "The ATSC, DVB and others in Japan are all starting to work on ways to distribute it on their existing channels. So, there's hope for a practical solution."

However, do people really want 3-D in their homes? Aylsworth said studies have shown that consumers are interested in 3-D and, for economic reasons, the industry will support that desire.

The Consumer Electronics Association and the University of Southern California's Entertainment Technology Center recently released a study using stereoscopic color anaglyphs (moving or still pictures in contrasting colors that appear three-dimensional when superimposed) to get a feel for how well consumers will like 3-D in their home, and the response was very positive.

Aylsworth said any new 3-D-to-the-home standard should be resolved in about a year, which is typical for most SMPTE initiatives. SMPTE is actually working on a series of standards related to 3-D, including defining the image parameters as well as ancillary metadata, such as subtitles and closed captions.

"I think we'll see stereographic 3-D in the home, akin to what you now see in the theater, by 2012," she predicted, adding that those telecasts will most likely be sporting events that require special polarized glasses to see the 3-D effects.

Time — and a number of market forces — will tell whether she's right.