Why the Old World Matters for 3D

Anyone who thinks that the U.S. and Japan are the epicenter of all things 3D obviously wasn’t following the news coming out of IBC in Amsterdam last week, where it sometimes seemed as if everyone had a 3D announcement. In fact, when it comes to 3D television, the old world of European TV, which was slow to adopt HD television, seems to be embracing the new world of stereoscopic television faster than any region outside Japan. And that is very good news for the future of 3D in the U.S., analysts say.

A recent B&C survey of 3D activity in Europe found that broadcasters and multichannel operators in at least 15 countries have done 3D productions or launched channels. This October alone will see major 3D channel launches in the U.K., Germany and Russia.

“Worldwide, all of the markets are moving, but I think Europe is leading and the U.S. is catching up,” says Steve Schklair, CEO of 3D technology provider 3ality Digital Systems.

For U.S. companies eyeing the potential of 3D, the rapid embrace of 3D by European firms is good news both in terms of volume—the fragmented European TV landscape offers many more potential clients in addition to the U.S.—and the development of standards that will ultimately help reduce costs.

Unlike the acrimonious debate over standards that slowed the deployment of high-definition television, major organizations such as the European Broadcast Union and the DVB Project are now working hand in hand with their North American and Asian counterparts to smooth and standardize the deployment of 3D equipment and services.

DVB’s Executive Director Peter Siebert notes that the group began work about a year ago for a specification that allows existing digital HD set-top boxes to communicate with 3D sets, and that this work should be completed by year-end. “Everything has been going very smoothly,” Siebert says. “There is a general interest in the industry to have uniform standards so that we are not confusing the end user and fragmenting the market.”

David Wood, EBU’s deputy technical director, agrees. “The show is on the road,” he says. “This October, we’ll see channels launched in the U.K., France and Germany using the frame-compatible format that works over the existing HD infrastructure with the 3D sets people are now buying.”

Early European experiments are also highlighting some of the emerging business models for 3D production and distribution. One key trend is the importance of forming alliances outside the television industry with consumer electronics manufacturers or with companies that can offer distribution in bars, clubs or cinemas for additional revenues.

Insight Media estimates that about 1.4 million 3D sets will be sold in Europe in 2010, growing to 3.9 million next year. But that will still put 3D sets in only a tiny portion of the 292 million European TV homes.

To overcome the lack of 3D sets in the home, BSkyB launched its Sky 3D channel in more than 1,000 pubs and clubs in the U.K. in April. This move has exposed over 1 million people in the U.K. to 3D content and created buzz for the Oct. 1 launch of the channel to subscribers. “It created some revenues at a time when there were few sets in the home, and it was great way to promote 3D,” Schklair notes.

Similar alliances have also been popular both in Europe and in the U.S. Last May, Eurosport partnered with Panasonic to beam 3D coverage of the French Open to retail outlets in Europe. In the U.S., DirecTV has partnered with Panasonic for one of its 3D channels, and Discovery is setting up a joint venture with Sony and IMAX for its 3D channel.

But here, as elsewhere, the hype surrounding all this activity needs to be put in perspective. According to Douglas I. Sheer, CEO and chief analyst at D.I.S. Consulting, which just completed what may be the first major study of the market for a wide variety of 3D production equipment, all the European activity “reinforces the idea that this is a serious global movement that goes beyond the U.S., and that the interest in 3D is not frivolous.” Yet Sheer also stresses that the market for 3D equipment is “still in its early days,” and notes that only 1% of all mobile vans in Europe are 3D-capable.

That caution is echoed by some major vendors. “There still aren’t many 3D channels,” says Stephan Würmlin Stadler, CEO of LiberoVision, which introduced innovative 3D replay technology at IBC in 2009. “We found that ESPN and Sky were interested, but that was it. With a lot of broadcasters, their budgets are already so tight that I don’t know if you can squeeze more money out of them for 3D.”

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