Skip to main content

TV’s Third Dimension

Are the new 3D glasses rose-colored?

Announcements of new 3D TV efforts dominated last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, as vendors salivated over the chance to grow a new high-end product category now that HD has gone mainstream. Programmers Discovery Communications and ESPN jumped out front with 3D news, looking for a competitive advantage, while DirecTV hopes to leapfrog cable on the technology the way it did with HD.

Even before the doors had opened on the annual CES confab here last week, a constellation of companies announced plans for the third dimension:

  • The ESPN 3D network will premiere in June at the FIFA World Cup, carrying 85 live events in the first year, with Sony as a key sponsor;
  • Discovery Communications, Sony and IMAX will jointly launch a 24-hour linear 3D service to launch in 2011 with movies, documentaries and children’s programming;
  • DirecTV will debut three 3D channels in June that use RealD’s video-encoding format and will be sponsored exclusively by Panasonic;
  • Vendor companies including Sony, Samsung, LG Electronics, Toshiba and Vizio announced 3D televisions and 3D Blu-ray Disc players — including Panasonic’s 152-inch HD 3D plasma display.

But the excitement was tempered with a reality check: Will consumers pay to see TV’s third dimension?

Some wonder how fast the glitzy new 3DTVs, expected to initially cost north of $2,000, will wend their way into living rooms as the U.S. and the rest of the world keep struggling to shake one of the worst recessions in recent memory. And many consumers have already updated their living room hardware with new cut-rate HDTVs.

Cable operators are watching the 3D fanfare with great interest, but are unconvinced there will be rapid adoption. “For us, at the moment, it’s clearly a wait-and-see issue,” Cox Communications chief financial officer Mark Bowser said last week. “The question is, how many devices will be in the field?”

The Consumer Electronics Association forecasts about 2.2 million 3D TVs will be sold in 2010 — just a fraction of the more than 210 million sets that are expected to ship worldwide this year, according to research firm DisplaySearch. DisplaySearch’s numbers are more conservative, pegging this year’s 3D TV units at 1 million, increasing to 9 million in 2012.

Discovery Communications founder and chairman John Hendricks said skeptics raised the same questions about how quickly HD would take off when the company launched one of the first 24-hour HD networks in 2002, HD Theater.

Hendricks estimated that about 5 million households are “early adopters,” which will purchase a 3DTV set within the next 24 to 36 months, with another approximately 20 million affluent households that will subsequently adopt the technology.

“I’m convinced that 5 to 10 years from now we’ll see the mass rollout of this,” Hendricks said.

Obviously, the availability of 3D content will be a key driver. About 25% of U.S. Internet users surveyed plan to buy a 3D TV within the next three years, according to a recent survey conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association in conjunction with the University of Southern California’s Entertainment Technology Center. Of those, 67% said they will be more likely to buy one if they can watch 3D television programs over the air or through cable, satellite or telco TV services.

So, what does 3D TV look like? If you’ve recently seen a 3D movie recently in 3D, you have a sense of what a similar experience would be at home. Watching a National Basketball Association game shot in 3D can make it seem as if you’re actually in the arena. Certain visual effects — like confetti — are particularly eye-popping in 3D. Sometimes, though, rapid cuts between scenes can leave viewers disoriented, with a sensation of motion-sickness.

Today’s 3D TVs, including the ones announced at CES, will require viewers to wear glasses of some kind. TV manufacturers are working on 3D display techniques that won’t require glasses — and Samsung had an impressive prototype on the show floor — but industry observers say these are at least three years out.

The as-yet-unnamed Discovery/Sony/IMAX 3D network will feature programming from genres that the companies said will lend themselves to the format, including movies, natural history, space, science and technology, and children’s programming.

Said Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav: “We’ve had a lot of discussions with the distributors in general about 3D. There are a lot of questions, and [there’s] a lot of excitement. … We expect that it will be very well-received.” He said he expects the channel to be “broadly available.”

Distributors will be able to carry a 3D channel in about the same amount of the bandwidth they use for an HD signal, Zaslav said. According to CableLabs, many of the digital set-top boxes currently deployed by cable operators are capable of processing 3DTV signals in a “frame-compatible” format, which carries separate left and right video signals within the video frame used to convey a conventional, 2D high-definition signal by squeezing them to fit within the space of one picture.

Discovery, Sony and IMAX will each have a 33% stake in the venture. Discovery will provide network services — including affiliate sales and technical support — as well as 3D television rights to Discovery content and cross-promotion across its portfolio of 13 U.S. television networks.

Sony and IMAX will contribute movies and other content, with Sony providing additional advertising and sponsorship sales support and marketing across the U.S., and IMAX contributing a suite of proprietary and patented image enhancement and 3D technologies. The Discovery/Sony/IMAX network doesn’t have an official name yet and the partners have initiated a search for a CEO to launch the network.

IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond pointed to the movie industry’s recent success with 3D to demonstrate its consumer appeal. He claimed that IMAX-affiliated theaters — which are currently showing James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar in 3D — represented 25% of the box office in the U.S. last weekend with just 2% of the screens. “That gives you a sense of the power of 3D,” he said.

DirecTV is even more bullish on 3D. The satellite TV provider, looking to maintain its technology reputation, hopes to be ready to roll out 3D this summer and beat cable out of the gate. DirecTV said HD subscribers will receive a free software upgrade that will enable them to have access to the three dedicated 3D channels through compatible 3D television sets.

“We led the way with HD and we are excited to do the same with 3D,” DirecTV Entertainment executive vice president Eric Shanks said in a statement.

DirecTV and Panasonic said they will “leverage current relationships” with programming partners and movie studios to procure new and existing 3D content. DirecTV is currently working with AEG/AEG Digital Media, CBS, Fox Sports/FSN, Golden Boy Promotions, HDNet, MTV, NBC Universal and Turner Broadcasting System, to develop additional 3D programming that will debut in 2010 and 2011.

DirecTV is “looking forward to having conversations with the programming community, including ESPN and the newly formed Discovery/Sony/IMAX JV,” spokesman Robert Mercer said.

At launch, DirecTV will offer 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.

The satellite provider did not announce pricing for the PPV and VOD services, as it is still working on the package structure, Mercer said.

Panasonic will be the exclusive presenting sponsor of DirecTV’s new HD 3D channels, which will feature the CE manufacturer’s branding for a one-year period. Mercer said the satellite operator’s 3D lineup will be compatible with 3D TVs from Panasonic, LG, Samsung and Sony.

At CES, Panasonic showed its Viera HDTVs and home theater systems tuned to a dedicated DirecTV 3D channel with content from Avatar, as well as other sports, entertainment, documentary and music footage at its booth. DirecTV is working with 3D technology vendor RealD to deliver high-definition 3D movies and TV programming to subscribers on existing HD set-top boxes.

ESPN will be in experimentation mode with 3DTV over the next six months, looking at different technologies and production techniques leading up to the launch of its 3D event network, also in June. “This is an ongoing science project for us,” said Bryan Burns, ESPN’s vice president of strategic business planning and development.

ESPN kicked off its 3D efforts in a concerted way about a year ago, creating the 3DOC (“3D organizing committee”), which comprises about 30 people, Burns said.

The 3D service is to debut this summer with the June 11 South Africa-Mexico World Cup match. The service is scheduled to include at least 85 live events in the first year, including college football — capped with the BCS National Championship Game in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 10, 2011 — college basketball, National Basketball Association games and ESPN’s Summer X Games in Los Angeles.

But ESPN 3D will not be a 24-hour service: It will be on the air only when a live 3D event is being broadcast and otherwise dark. “Out of respect to the bandwidth needs of our distributors … we’re going to take it down after the event,” Burns said.

ESPN has not announced any carriage deals for the new network; Burns declined to say whether ESPN 3D would be available as a premium channel through a sports tier. ESPN has been testing 3D technology for more than two years. Last fall, the programmer produced a 3D broadcast of the USC-Ohio State college football game, which was shown in select theaters.

Home viewers will need to wear some kind of glasses and have a 3D-compatible TV, but ESPN has not determined which specific stereoscopic format it will use for 3D broadcasts. Burns said decisions on formats “will be made very, very soon,” and he noted that ESPN staff are represented on different technical committees that are hammering out standards, including the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers’ task force on 3D to the home.

“We think there will be a virtual tsunami of announcements from CE makers with new 3DTVs, and we’re getting ahead of that and working with them to drive products into the marketplace,” Burns said. “We’ve seen where 3D can enhance certain sports events.”

Even Comcast tried to crash the 3D New Year’s party. The cable operator last week announced it was offering New Line Cinema’s horror film The Final Destination on video-on-demand exclusively in 3D and HD on Jan. 5, the same day as the DVD release—letting customers “scream and duck as lethal objects fly from the TV screen right in their own living rooms.”

However, Comcast uses old-fashioned anaglyph 3D, which require those red-and-blue glasses that are derided by audio-visual snobs. The newer 3D technologies that use passive polarized or active-shutter glasses render decidedly crisper images.

To be sure, however, 3D-to-the-home technology standards are still in flux. CableLabs, for example, has been performing ad-hoc testing of 3D TVs with set-tops since last summer and is now expanding the program, said David Broberg, the consortium’s vice president of consumer video technology.

“We’re looking at what happens when you try different TVs and set-tops,” Broberg said. “We want to eliminate the opportunity for surprises in the field.”

Forecasts indicate growing interest in the technology: