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Wed 10 Jun 2009 04:00 AM

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The third dimension

3D has conquered the cinema and has taken its first steps toward finding its way onto the TV. Digital Broadcast looks at how the format may develop and assesses its prospects in the region.

The third dimension
The third dimension
Afzal Lakdawala, Director of broadcasting services, Arab Media Group.
The third dimension
3D has proved successful at the cinema with titles available in 3D as well as 2D, experiencing a significant boost in revenue. The popularity of 3D cinema is also incubating consumer demand for 3D TV.
The third dimension
Wendy Aylsworth, VP engineering, SMPTE and senior VP of technology for Warner Bros. technical operations.
The third dimension
Despite the likely appeal of 3D content and the almost inevitable demand, broadcasters are aware that the transition to 3D will be both more complicated and more expensive than the SD to HD switch.
The third dimension

3D has conquered the cinema and has taken its first steps toward finding its way onto the TV. Digital Broadcast looks at how the format may develop and assesses its prospects in the region.

This year’s NAB show featured the usual array of technologies covering the full spectrum of innovation from those with minor updates to those offering an entirely new approach to a problem. As with all technology trade shows, there were also demonstrations of innovations still to come, or at least still to enter the realm of commercial viability.

The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) presented its 3D home master standard at the event, which lays the technical foundations for both image formatting and multiplatform delivery. This step could mark the point where 3D TV made its first stride toward becoming a mainstream technology.

“The NAB announcement was extremely significant,” says Wendy Aylsworth, VP engineering, SMPTE and senior VP of technology for Warner Bros. technical operations. “The SMPTE’s role was to define a standard so that content producers could work to a single, deliverable format.

“This format must be easily transformed into the various packages required for different distribution channels. Then of course you have to consider display technology and ensure that these can decode and present this common format.”

SMPTE is now in the process of distributing the report of its work on the 3D home master format to all the relevant standards bodies and organisations involved in the process of moving 3D content from the creator to the viewer.

“We believe this to be the first important technical document on standardised methods of delivering 3D content to the home. All of the members who took part in the SMPTE 3D to the home task force – from content producers to consumer electronics manufacturers – agreed on the need for a home master standard and its basic parameters,” says Aylsworth.The SMPTE had around 200 members working on the 3D home master standard over a six month period, making it the largest task force in the SMPTE’s history, according to Aylsworth.

“There was a high level of active participation, which shows that many companies in the entertainment distribution industry feel that 3D may finally be coming of age,” she says.

SMPTE is now working on finalised specifications based on the requirements set out by the home master framework with the goal of creating an open 3D standard available to consumers sooner rather than later.

So how prepared – and how interested – have the broadcasters been so far?

“From the perspective of exploring new revenue streams, there clearly is interest within the broadcast industry, especially in markets where digital TV is already widely available,” says Aylsworth.

“Certain genres, such as sports – a vital revenue drivers for broadcasters – can benefit substantially from 3D but there will be many technological challenges too.”

With the Middle East lagging behind Europe and North America in the implementation of HDTV services, some may consider 3D TV as an unwelcome distraction.“The problem the Middle East will face is the same that will be experienced everywhere – content acquisition,” says Afzal Lakdawala director of broadcasting services, Arab Media Group.

“The film industry is working with a bigger budget than we have in TV, which has allowed it to experiment and explore the new technology. The TV business is already very budget-conscious and 3D TV acquisition is only going to make things more expensive,” claims Lakdawala.

“It involves higher production costs in particular and even once you have some programming in place, making it available to the consumers is a difficult task. Not many teleports are capable of handling 3D, it requires a lot of bandwidth. You then need the consumer to have a 3D TV compliant display as well. None of these things are in place in the Middle East at present,” he adds.

As new satellite services appear to be on the cusp of solving the region’s bandwidth problems finally paving the way for HD transmission, is the same problem set to hamstring the future development of 3D TV?

“I don’t think so,” says Lakdawala. “We have seen some significant evolution with bandwidth issues in the past few years, MPEG2 and to a lesser extent, MPEG4 amounted to a revolution. As these technologies advance, bandwidth is becoming less and less of an issue.”

Lakdawala sees the real technology challenges lying in operations rather than transmission.

“There wasn’t much of a challenge with the transition from SD to HD because at the end of the day, SD to HD convertors that make life fairly simple. But when it comes to 3D… I don’t think there is anything available today that can convert regular [live-action] 2D content to 3D.“We are still in the early phase and standardisation has only just begun. It is still not clear how things will develop in the future,” he adds. “It all depends on how much the consumer electronics vendors want to push 3D.”

With the consumer electronics vendors yet to decide on a single approach to presenting 3D content, broadcasters and producers have some time before the pressure is on to provide 3D TV content, time that may be required to perfect the most suitable distribution path to the home.

“The key consideration for broadcasters at the moment is more to do with the additional investment required to tackle the challenge of 3D service delivery,” claims Aylsworth.

“Internet, cable and other closed systems as well as DVDs and Blu-ray discs, will have a more immediate role in 3D service delivery. Terrestrial and satellite broadcasting meanwhile, has the greatest challenge in 3D service delivery because of limited bandwidth and the absolute need for backward compatibility with existing [2D-only] receivers,” she explains.

For this very reason Aylsworth believes this ability to offer 2D and 3D transmissions in parallel will be the prime focus for broadcasters.

So far there have been experimental broadcasts in the US and UK however Aylsworth describes the viewer enthusiasm as “limited”.

This desire for 3D content could be encouraged by the application of 3D in other forms of entertainment. The success of the format at the cinema is now undisputed with many of the major US studios pledging to increase the number of features developed for the both 2D and 3D release.“I think 3D services will make it into living rooms – through games consoles if nothing else. This, combined with the success of 3D cinema will drive demand for in-home 3D entertainment content,” says Aylsworth.

“A high level of demand is inevitable. Once an enhancement such as 3D is marketed to consumers, they will want everything that way. We have already seen this with HDTV.

“On the other hand, the 3D experience – while greatly improved from both the technical and physiological perspective over the past few years – is a very different change than the SD/HD shift. It won’t be practical or economically viable to produce everything in 3D.”

This is an opinion seconded by AMG’s Lakdawala.

“At the moment the cost is very high and the technology is limited so I think it is more likely that broadcasters will start with an hour a day of 3D. The cinema is a one-off experience and I don’t know whether viewers would want – or that it would be comfortable – to watch their normal TV programmes in 3D,” suggests Lakdawala.

“Content-wise, I think series and sitcoms are unlikely to prove popular in 3D. Sporting events would certainly be a good option to start with.”

SMPTE’s Aylsworth is also acutely aware of the importance of content in driving the underlying technology forward.“A lot will depend on the type of content demanded by consumers in these markets. A heavy interest in 3D at the cinema, gaming and sports content could be enough to prompt broadcasters in any market, including the Middle East, to accelerate their move into 3D,” suggests Aylsworth.

Despite this acceleration, High Definition remains the technology that the mass market of consumers is ready for now. As such, it is likely to remain the priority for broadcasters with returns (in most markets) available now. For now, 3DTV will continue along its path of development, but HD will lead the way.

“The 3D experience is quite different than the HD one. Both extend the level of the user experience but I do not see a scenario with a broadcaster or pay TV network abdicating their analogue- or SD-to HD plans for a jump to 3D,” says Aylsworth.

“I see 3D as another complementary opportunity that will further expand the variety of digital services for all those in the content chain, including the consumer.”

3D conquers the big screen

2D and 3D releases are generating more revenue at the cinema than 2D-only releases. Recent industry and media reports suggesting that a 3D cinema release can generate two to three times increases in box office receipts compared to 2D-only movies.

In one recent theatrical release, 28 percent of 3D screen content generated nearly 60 percent of a release’s total revenue in the first week. Meanwhile, consumer electronics companies are pinning their hopes on 3D as a significant differentiator that could help boost new-device sales.

“We are very bullish on 3D,” says Nandhu Nandhakumar, senior VP, advanced technology, LG Electronics. “It’s an experience that is finally feasible at high quality and at consumer price points. With standardisation happening across the board and with rapid technology advances, I think 3D is very near-term.”