3DTV 2010: 3D Is Ready For Primetime

WHILE THE LONG-TERM business potential for stereoscopic 3D high-definition television remains unclear, the necessary production, transmission and display technology to bring 3D HD programming to market this year is already in place. 3D’s biggest stumbling block in 2010 will likely be educating consumers about the technology and demonstrating it effectively at retail stores.

That was the central message from 3DTV2010, a wideranging, half-day conference held in New York last week produced by B&C, Multichannel News, TWICE, Videography, DV Magazine and TV Technology. The conference drew more than 300 executives from the consumer electronics, pay-TV, production and professional vendor communities.

Executives from satellite operator DirecTV and cable giant Comcast said their existing HD set-tops and transmission infrastructure can deliver 3D images to new 3D sets today. Production veterans from the NBA, CBS and ESPN said that early 3D broadcasts have taught them how to balance the desire for a dynamic 3D effect with the need to show important game action; they are now exploring how to share 2D camera positions with 3D productions as a way to keep costs in check. And 3ality Digital Systems CEO Steve Schklair described how his company’s specialized 3D camera rigs, which have supported NFL and NHL productions in the U.S., are now being used regularly in the U.K. and India after his company provides initial training.

“Right now, the biggest obstacle in the industry is education, both on the consumer and professional sides,” Schklair said.

For 3D HD proponents, the overall picture must be reassuring, given that commercial 3D HD will officially launch in the U.S. in less than two weeks, when the ESPN 3D channel begins its coverage of the FIFA World Cup on June 11 with a match between South Africa and Mexico.

ESPN 3D will show some 25 World Cup matches in 3D in its first month and will likely air a total of 100 3D events in its first year, more than its plan of 85 events, according to Sean Bratches, ESPN’s executive VP of sales and marketing. Bratches, who was interviewed by Multichannel News Editor in- Chief Mark Robichaux in a keynote session, said that 3D represents an opportunity to better serve the sports fan, just like HD back in 2003.

“It seems to be a technology that’s on the move, and it’s an opportunity to serve our core constituency,” he said.

But with carriage already lined up on DirecTV and Comcast that will reach more than 40 million homes, at launch ESPN 3D is well ahead of ESPN’s first HD channel, which initially secured carriage with a handful of small cable operators. “Significantly more homes will have access to ESPN 3D than HD [at launch],” Bratches said.

Driving development

ESPN has been driving much of 3D’s development on the production side over the past two years, producing a series of test broadcasts with 3D specialist PACE and creating a dedicated lab in Orlando, Fla. Bratches said the network planned to test a range of vendors’ equipment late last week with semi-pro football players at a stadium in East Hartford, Conn. ESPN has just fi nished shooting its first “This Is SportsCenter” promotional spot in 3D and will only be accepting 3D commercials for the new network; sponsor Sony will have a 3D spot ready to go for the World Cup.

But Bratches noted that running 3D spots on ESPN 3D is “preaching to the converted,” and pointed out that the much larger advertising opportunity is in running commercials for 3D sets on its 2D networks, which the sports giant is already doing. He added that consumer awareness of 3D is probably better than it was for HD at a similar point in that technology’s life cycle, and predicted that by 2019, 3D penetration will still lag HD but will be somewhat ahead of DVR penetration.

3D is still in its “very early days,” said Mike Vitelli, president of Americas for Best Buy, and so far there has been little product in the market. Vitelli, who was interviewed by TWICE Editor-in-Chief Steve Smith in another keynote session, said that the response of consumers to early in-store demonstrations has been good, though he didn’t disclose any sales fi gures for 3D sets.

“We’re pleased,” Vitelli said. “Consumers are experiencing the technology, enjoying it and purchasing it.”

But there is still a good deal of consumer confusion over 3D, Vitelli cautioned. One misperception is that 3D HD-capable sets can be used only to watch 3D when in fact they are top-of-the-line HD sets with a bevy of extra features, 3D being just one of them. He said that “3D-ready” branding, which is already being used on some Blu-ray players, should help solve that problem.

Vitelli also predicted that there will be a wave of customer complaints as consumers attempt to take active-shutter glasses configured for their particular set and use them to watch 3D on another manufacturer’s set in a friend’s home.

“You bring your glasses and they’re not the right ones, it’s not good,” Vitelli said. “I know where that phone call is going. It’s not going to be anybody here [referring to the programmers and operators in the room]. We’re going to get that call.”

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