Aggressive 3D Entrants Raise Bar for More Cautious Players

Stampede to 3D at CES

Stampede to 3D at CES

January 13, 2010 – the publicity surrounding new 3D TVs and early moves into 3D on the part of DirecTV, ESPN and Discovery saddle everyone else in content production and distribution with a need to answer a lot of questions that don’t lend themselves to easy answers.

How will consumers respond to the availability of 3D? Which, if any formats will produce an experience sufficient to drive the market within the existing bandwidth constraints of the major distribution channels? How will format incompatibilities be sorted out? Do technologies purporting to convert 2D to 3D programming in real time produce an enhancement in the viewing experience that’s worth committing to?

To answer such questions requires an assessment of myriad new developments that in many respects undermine existing assumptions on these issues. For example, DirecTV, which at CES was feeding some manufacturers’ booths with a prototype of the 3D channel it intends to introduce commercially in June, set a new benchmark for what can be accomplished over an existing HDTV channel without additional bandwidth.

Compared to anything yet demonstrated at industry trade shows DirecTV’s approach to 3D over existing HD channels was amazingly close in quality to the pictures generated over systems like the new Blu-ray 3D, which, as reported on page 24, uses the new Multiview Video Coding (MVC) enhancement to MPEG-4 to generate pictures in a channel that requires 50 percent more bandwidth than an MPEG-4 HDTV channel. DirecTV is using the stereoscopic technique that requires use of active shutter glasses, where a full 1080p frame of video is delivered alternatively to each eye.

Up to now attempts to apply this technique over legacy HD channels have been impeded by breaks in motion continuity owing to the fact that each eye is seeing the picture at a rate of 30 frames per second rather than the full 60 frames per second that create the illusion of continuous motion in fast-action sequences. CableLabs, in its development of a first-phase approach to 3D for the cable industry has so far ruled out this approach to stereoscopic 3D because of the motion problem, which is even worse in interlaced HD format, where the aggregate frame rate is 30 fbs.

But in fast-action sequences from a football game, speed skating, motorcross and trailers for Disney’s Toy Story 2 and Alice and Wonderland shown on Samsung and Panasonic 3D sets at CES the DirectTV video had none of the motion gaps common to other demos using the shutter-glasses technique. A Samsung representative said there was no reprocessing of the signal taking place at the receive end either in the TV itself or the DirecTV IRD.

Indeed, DirecTV says it will be able to deliver the new 3D service in progressive or interlaced format to existing HD subscribers who have compatible 3D TV sets with a free software upgrade downloaded to their receivers. The initial offering will include a 24-hour, 3D pay-per-view channel focused on movies, documentaries and other programming; a 24-hour, 3D video-on-demand channel; and a free 3D “sampler demo channel,” featuring event programming such as sports, music and other content.

Another revelation to be factored into service provider and programmer strategies is that the ability to convert existing 2D programming to something approaching real 3D in real time is likely to be a given of the distribution environment going forward. As previously reported (November p. 8) HDlogix has been demonstrating such a system that is compatible with any 3D format, and Motorola is working on such a system as well.

At CES HDlogix had demos of the real-time conversion into the shutter-glasses format and also into a glasses-free prototype format developed by Samsung, which can only be viewed without distortion from a single spot on a line extending perpendicularly from the exact center of the TV screen. In both cases the 3D effect was noticeable, though not to the level achieved with content developed for 3D.

More remarkable still was a real-time 2D-to-3D conversion technology developed by Samsung that runs on the microprocessors used in its new generation of 3D TVs. Anyone buying one of these sets, which will be in stores within six months, can view any program in this pseudo 3D mode, which uses shutter glasses. Samsung declined to say what the sets will cost, but it’s generally assumed such capabilities will come at a high premium on sets costing above $7,000.

Nonetheless, as is always the case with new processing techniques running on advanced chipsets, 2D-to-3D technology will sooner or later be in reach of the average consumer, probably from multiple vendors. At that point 3D viewing will likely be as mainstream as HD is today.

As all of this was unfolding CableLabs announced its testing of various stereoscopic formats showed that cable operators would be able to deliver 3D programming to 3D TVs over many models of deployed digital set-tops, as long as the formats are frame compatible with existing display modes, meaning the left and right video signals are transmitted within the video frames used to convey conventional HD pictures. Such formats will be supported through 3D HDMI connections between the set-tops and 3D TVs, specifications for which have been updated at CableLabs’ urging to support the top/bottom stereoscopic format (see p. 24).

“We’ve found today’s cable system is a flexible system that enables delivery of 3D TV signals with little to no change in cable’s existing video-on-demand and switched-digital-video infrastructure to existing set-top boxes,” said CableLabs CEO Paul Liao.

“Cable delivered 3D video works equally well with displays using active shutter glasses and with displays using passive polarized glasses” added David Broberg, CableLabs’ vice president of consumer video technology.

CableLabs officials noted a recent survey conducted by Quixel Research showed a large segment of HDTV set owners view cable and satellite delivery of 3D as the preferred mode of reception. The survey found 46 percent of respondents had a strong interest in viewing 3D TV in their homes over a cable or satellite distribution system versus other distribution means such as Blu-ray, they said.

To that end ESPN said it will launch ESPN 3D on June 11 with the first 2010 World Cup soccer match and will offer a minimum of 85 live sporting events through the remainder of the year, including more World Cup matches, competition from the Summer X Games and college football and basketball games. The network, which has not announced which 3D format it will use, said the 3D channel will only operate when these events are aired.

The Discovery 3D initiative won’t begin until next year, when it will team with Sony Pictures and IMAX to launch an as yet unnamed around-the-clock 3-D channel in the U.S. The partners said the new network will feature programming from genres that lend themselves to 3-D, including movies, natural history, space, exploration, adventure, engineering, science and technology and children’s programming from Discovery, Sony Pictures Entertainment, IMAX and other providers.

Under the terms of the partnership, Discovery will provide network services, including affiliate sales and technical support functions, as well as 3D television rights to Discovery content and cross-promotion across its portfolio of 13 U.S. television networks. Sony will provide advertising/sponsorship sales and retail cross-promotion support and plans to license television rights to current and future 3-D feature films and other content. IMAX will license television rights to future 3-D films, provide promotion through its owned-and-operated movie theaters across the U.S., and contribute a suite of proprietary and patented image enhancement and 3-D technologies.