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Vendors hope London Olympics will revive 3-D

CE vendors and some broadcasters hope that the London Olympics will revive the market for 3-D from the doldrums into which it subsided late in 2010. Such once-off show cases have traditionally given a boost for new broadcast technology, but while the benefits of HD, boosted by the 2008 Beijing Olympics, were clear and applied to almost every sport, the case for 3-D is less certain while glasses still have to be worn.

Nevertheless the 3-D industry has been buoyed by various surveys indicating that significant numbers of European viewers, especially in the UK as the Olympic host country, have expressed interest in buying 3-D-capable TV sets for the games. For example, a survey of 2000 people conducted by CE giant LG found that 37 percent of UK residents would be interested in purchasing a 3-D TV for the Olympics. For some people, the temptation to purchase a 3-D TV set will be reinforced by the Euro 2012 football tournament being staged in Spain and Portugal earlier that summer. This is the second biggest football tournament after the World Cup, and given European supremacy of the sport with Spain being current world champions, 27 percent of UK residents said that in turn might allure them into purchasing a 3-D TV set.

At the same time, there has been a general slight revival in 3-D interest in Europe. In the UK, the BBC successfully broadcast the recent Wimbledon lawn tennis championships in 3-D as a kind of dress rehearsal for the Olympics. This was the BBC's first broadcast of 3-D images, through an agreement between the All England Club which stages the tournament and Sony Professional.

Meanwhile, 3-D has actually gained momentum in Germany, with the country bucking the downward trend in sentiment at the back end of last year. In fact, while 200,000 3-D-capable sets were sold in Germany in 2010, this will grow five times to 1 million in 2011 according to GfK Retail and Technology (opens in new tab), the retail and technology sales forecasters. At first sight, this does sound surprising given the relatively low amount of 3-D programming in Germany combined with the high cost of 3-D battery-powered glasses needed to view the broadcasts at present. But such figures do need treating with a little skepticism and do not equate with actual consumption of 3-D content. In the early days of HD, people bought HD-ready TV sets in increasing numbers as the cost came down but often did not immediately watch HD broadcasts, which at first were either not available or cost extra in the case of pay TV services. This applies even more to -3D, which in some cases is being introduced as a feature on high-end TV sets that people are purchasing primarily for watching premium content in HD.

Such caveats aside though, the slight renewal of interest in 3-D is creating a dilemma for some European broadcasters. This is the case at any rate for the BBC, whose 3-D plans as a public service broadcaster, funded mostly by a compulsory license levied on UK TV viewers, are circumscribed by budged constraints.

The BBC had no plans to launch a dedicated 3-D channel in time for the Olympics but may now be reconsidering that after the success of the Wimbledon broadcast coupled with signs of growing interest. But the dilemma is that this would be at the expense of HD channels, which are currently available to 8.5 million people in the UK. By contrast, the number of 3-D-capable sets by then is unlikely to be 10 percent of that number. Significantly perhaps though the BBC is planning to spend £300,000 upgrading its iPlayer catch up service for the Olympics (see separate story).

In the longer term, success for 3-D will depend both on standardization and success in developing large-screen 3-D TVs that can be viewed easily at high quality from all angles. While some vendors claim to be on the verge of launching goggle-less TV sets, Panasonic has stated that the industry is five years away from mass manufacture of such a TV set that really does work properly without artifacts.