Blockbuster Movies May Boost Emerging 3-D Services

Broadband's Impact, International March 31st, 2010

, Reporter, BroadbandBreakfast.com

LONDON, March 31, 2010 – The runaway success of the digitally dazzling movies Avatar and Alice in Wonderland has boosted hopes among satellite and cable television operators that their emerging 3-D services will gain significant traction despite the high cost for the TV set and goggles.

Those films showed that 3-D technology can add depth and power to the visual experience, which is an important step toward adoption of 3-D TV, at least when the price comes down, according to Richard Broughton, senior analyst at the London-based TV specialist research firm Screen Digest.

“Pay-TV companies are keen to use this publicity to their advantage,” said Broughton. “Without such major budget films really highlighting the state of 3-D technology, it is unlikely that 3-D would have reached such a high point in consumer mindsets.”

From the TV perspective, the films timed nicely with the impending soccer World Cup, which will be used to showcase 3-D, particularly in Europe where there are a number of participating countries in the event.

“Sports were a critical factor for [high-definition] uptake,” Broughton said. Another major European sports championship two years ago prompted uptake of HD TV by many households. It’s no coincidence that many of the first HD channels to be launched by platforms are sports channels.

Pictures in three dimensions are likely to follow the same trend, according to Broughton. Sky TV has plans for HD channels and is rolling out a range of 3-D screens to a number of public venues in time for the World Cup. Sky is launching its first 3D channel in the United Kingdom in April timed for the World Cup, planning to follow with a more robust range of 3-D programming later this year.

However, there are still doubts whether 3-D TV really is ripe for widespread consumer acceptance — even if the prices do come down — because it still relies on goggles.

While people are happy to wear goggles to watch a movie occasionally, it is doubtful whether many will be willing to don them on a regular basis.

Goggles currently are needed to simulate the way the human brain creates 3-D image, by presenting each eye with slightly offset images. By contrast, traditional 2-D TV, including HD, is just a fast changing sequence of 2-D still images, relying just on perspective within each frame to convey depth.

The major TV makers have been working on “goggle-less” technology, but have so far failed to translate this into a screen that works without creating headaches or visual problems.

“There are a number of concerns regarding perceived image quality and comfort of viewing for auto stereoscopic (goggle-less) technologies which means that for the near future, 3D televisions requiring glasses are likely to take front stage,” said Broughton.

The problem lies in the way the human visual cortex has evolved to process offset binocular images, which is hard to cater for accurately in an artificial flat screen system. The result is that some people suffer from the same sort of problems caused by wearing someone else’s glasses, for example.

Such problems emerged during the testing of Philips’ 3-D TV, due for launch in summer 2010. Originally this was going to be goggle-less, but after causing visual discomfort among many testers trials will now be introduced with viewing glasses.

Which ever viewing technology is adopted, 3-D TV is going to soak up even more bandwidth than HD, causing further problems for broadband service providers.

It is no surprise that satellite and cable operators are coming out first with 3-D services, which generally consume twice as much bandwidth per channel as 1080p HD, which is the the highest resolution HD category. The 1080p already generates twice as much data as 1080i or 720p HD, the format used by many existing HD services.

In effect, each eye needs its own channel for 3-D. Given that the whole point of 3-D is to deliver the highest quality viewing experience possible, there is little point having anything less than the best HD for each eye. This may be transmitted at around 16 megabits per second with the latest H.264 compression. However, developers and manufacturers are concerned about sacrificing too much quality in the process.

Broadband operators would have to upgrade their digital subscriber line networks to VDSL2 to deliver 3-D. Even then they may run out of headroom when they deliver multiple channels, while their cable and satellite competitors are better placed with more broadcast spectrum.

Over time, further improvements in management of the electromagnetic spectrum over copper, combined with greater fiber penetration will enable broadband operators to deliver multichannel 3-D. Meanwhile, some players in the 3-D community may be hoping that mass acceptance will be delayed by the continuing problems getting goggle-less technology to work.

It may be crystal clear if this is the case when the World Cup is over.

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