Pressure is building to get 3D TV into viewer’s homes. But questions remain regarding production, formats, bandwidth, standards and consumer equipment.

The deployment of three-dimensional (3D) television has been at an impasse for a while. Which comes first: consumer uptake of 3D TV sets, or enough 3D programming to tempt consumers?

Programming itself appears to be on the rise, and from a category ideally suited to it: sports. In December, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) announced images from up to 25 matches of the 2010 World Cup (slated for June in South Africa) would be delivered in 3D.

FIFA stated that Sony Pictures Entertainment would produce and distribute the official 3D film of the games "after the event," noting that in the coming months it would be working on whether to offer a live right. That suggests, at a minimum, that a 3D version of these hugely popular games would be available to fans around the world in recorded, on-demand mode.

And soccer isn’t the only sport playing with this technology.

The NBA All-Star game in February 2009 was shot in 3D and presented in special theaters (see page 17), and the massive, center-hung video board at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium displayed 3D video at the Cowboys-Chargers game in December 2009 (see sidebar).

Of course, displaying 3D on the local movie theater screen or jumbo-tron is one thing; delivering it to the home is another.

2D-to-3D conversion

Edison, NJ-based HDlogix, the company involved with the Cowboys 3D event, is betting that 3D uptake in the homes will follow a similar trajectory as HD, with the impetus coming from the programming side. Hoping to prime the pump, the company has developed algorithms to create synthesized 3D, in which existing 2D content can be converted to 3D.

One major benefit of synthesized 3D is cost savings. According to Simon Tidnam, VP of sales at HDlogix, the estimated cost to produce original 3D content shot with two-camera views is $75,000 per footage minute, and adding 3D to existing HDTV video costs approximately $55,000 per footage minute. Whereas synthesized 3D is probably less than half that cost, he said.

"Synthesized makes up information that wasn’t in the original source," said Matthew Goldman, VP of technology compression systems, TANDBERG television. "You’re producing something from nothing."

And being able to convert huge libraries of existing movies into 3D and sell those as new products to consumers is something HDlogix is pitching to programmers. Their business argument makes some good points.

"There aren’t that many stereographers on the planet," said William Gaddy, CTO with HDlogix, alluding to the fact that it’s not only expensive to shoot video in 3D, but also requires specialized skill. And while synthesized 3D is a lot cheaper and doesn’t require stereographers, it offers enticements to programmers on the revenue side, as well.

Synthetic basketball?

As noted at the outset, the most likely candidate for early adoption 3D is sports programming.

In February 2009, a group of partners worked together to deliver an NBA All-Star game in live 3D. The NBA, TNT and Cinedigm Digital Cinema used 3D technology developed by digital camera systems provider PACE to broadcast the live 3D video by satellite to more than 80 digitally-equipped theaters across the United States where patrons paid as much as $35 for a ticket to feel like they were almost there.

But "almost" may be the operative word.

"Synthesized can’t possibly be as good as real 3D," said Goldman. "I’ve watched some of the NBA games broadcast in real time. I’m not personally that impressed with it. The basketball players running still look flat."

"Synthesized 3D has pluses and minuses," said Ajay Luthra, senior director in the advanced technology group at Motorola. "It can convert existing content into 3D, giving access to much wider libraries at lower cost. The only drawback is it does not create the ‘wow’ factor."

Luthra said synthetic 3D gives the impression that objects are moving away from the viewer, and it’s not possible to give the illusion that objects are jumping forward.

"If you are willing to accept that limitation, I think that it will be a good approach to fill in the gap," he said.

If programmers do take the initiative to start generating more content in 3D, that could get the ball rolling with 3D uptake. After that, other players will need to jump in. For operators, the issue will be coding and transport of 3D programming. And for consumer electronics manufacturers, the challenges are standardizing resolutions and displays and creating acceptable 3D glasses.

Multiple formats

At a Motorola Video Users’ Conference in September 2009, Luthra gave a presentation on 3D in which he outlined numerous possible representation formats. He broke these formats into two categories: single stream (video layer multiplex formats) and dual stream (system layer multiplex formats).

The video layer multiplex formats include checker-board pattern with left and right eye views creating the pattern; panel 3D format with left and right eye views divided into two, either side-by-side or top-and-bottom; and line-interleaved format.

But Luthra explained that there are benefits and drawbacks to each of the video layer multiplex formats with variables including bandwidth efficiency, backward compatibility with existing encoders, decoders, TV sets and set-tops, and, of course, quality of the 3D video.

As far as dual-stream system layer multiplex formats go, Luthra said there’s simulcast where left and right eye views are sent as two separate streams; multi-view coding where left eye view is 2D and right eye view is compressed; and 2D+ Depth in which depth information is created using algorithms.

In terms of bandwidth efficiency, multi-view coding (MVC) is more efficient than simulcast views.

"It depends on what kind of resolution you want," said Luthra. "You need to have two full SD channels to have full resolution for each eye. By exploiting the correlation between two eye views (with MVC), you can bring down (bandwidth usage) on average to 1.7-1.5 times for certain kinds of video. If you are comfortable with half resolution, then it does not need extra bandwidth."

But he cautioned: "People in the TV world don’t want to deploy half resolution. It’s okay to start, but eventually they want to compete with movie houses."

Although MVC maintains high resolution and its 2D mode is fully backward compatible, one drawback is that it requires a new HDMI 1.4 interface between the set-top box and the TV set.

A promising format on the horizon is 2D+ Depth, in which one eye-view is transmitted and depth is created from algorithms. 2D+ Depth would be more bandwidth efficient, but that technology is two to three years out, said Luthra.

Bandwidth issues

And of course, bandwidth is always a concern for service providers.

"If you’re doing a live event such as sports when you want to send 3D — how do you send both 3D and HD?" asked Goldman. "HD and 3D are both high bandwidth. That’s a lot of bandwidth real estate."

Many decisions will be based on what the viewer expects.

"If you’re going to be a purist, you’re going to send virtually all the information twice," said Holobinko, vice president of marketing, BigBand Networks. "As you get to a certain distance away, somewhere between 60-100 feet, the eye loses the ability to have 3D. You can relatively send the same information in the background. That’s the estimate of 30 percent bandwidth savings," he added, referring to MVC.

"My personal opinion, if 3D’s going to take hold in the short term, cable can’t afford full math," Holobinko said.

Although Holobinko is happy to promote switched digital video as a solution, he doesn’t expect operators to do SDV en masse for 3D. Instead, he said operators are more likely to deploy one of the less-than-perfect 3D resolution formats that is bandwidth efficient and backward compatible with existing set-tops.

"The most proactive advocates of 3D are satellite and cable operators." Ian Trow, Harmonic

But he added: "Switched digital is one of the easiest ways to make network capacities available."

Another alternative would be to offer 3D on demand.

"Video on demand could provide a better compromise between the large bandwidth requirements and quality expectations of a home user," wrote Ian Trow, director of broadcast solutions for Harmonic, in a paper delivered at IBC2009 last September. According to Trow’s analysis, which focuses on existing broadcast infrastructure, multiple factors — including bandwidth, standards and display technology — mitigate against the migration of 3D event coverage from the cinema to the home.

At the same time, Troy noted that "the most proactive advocates of 3D are satellite and cable operators where bandwidth can more readily be made available."

CPE and standards

The final step in the deployment of 3D takes place at the consumer premises.

In the world of movie-making and commercial theaters, stakeholders have already recognized the new revenue opportunities from 3D and are collaborating to develop standards. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) made 3D a main focus of its annual conference in Hollywood in October 2009.

On the home front, some TV manufacturers are already shipping HDTV sets that are 3D-enabled, even though consumers may not realize they own these.

While TV manufacturers are working on their own standards, video providers will need standards, too, "to define some type of an interchange format — a set of metadata — an abstraction layer separate from the physicality," said Goldman.

A year ago, the SCTE announced that its Engineering Committee had approved a project to examine the delivery of 3D content over cable networks. The project is focusing on changes to existing SCTE standards, including transport protocols, to facilitate the provision of 3D content by cable operators.

Whether formats or metadata or transport protocols, plenty of variables in the 3D equation remain in play. Competitive service providers recognize the unfinished tasks, too. "There are nearly a dozen different standards for 3D video," Verizon EVP and CTO Dick Lynch said in his keynote address at the FTTH Conference last September.

The dreaded glasses

One thing is likely with 3D TV: Absent the adoption of autostereoscopic technology, viewers will need to wear special glasses. A leading candidate — there are several — is active shuttered glasses that synchronize the image presented to the left and right eye. These glasses cost from $100-$200.

Will consumers be willing to pay for the TV set, the glasses and premium 3D programming? If the success at movie theaters is any indication, some will.

The variables in play are many. It may look improbable that everything will line up, but if there’s money to be made, sports may jumpstart 3D.

Jumbo-tron to Display 3D Football

It would be an understatement to say: they like to do things big in Texas. So, when the Dallas Cowboys got a new stadium last year, naturally it came equipped with the world’s largest high definition (HD) screen.

The video board (aka jumbo-tron) measures 160 feet by 72 feet (11,520 square feet) and has 1080p equivalent resolution. The four-board video cluster is suspended 90 feet over the center of the playing surface and stretches from the 20-yard line to the 20-yard line.

For the Sunday, December 13, 2009, Dallas Cowboys-San Diego Chargers game, HDlogix, a company that has created a synthesized 3D technology, was preparing at the time of this writing to convert HD video of the sports action into 3D.

At half-time and during the game, attendees at Cowboys Stadium would see real-time 3D video created from HDlogix’s new ImageIQ 3D technology.

"We’re focusing on selling a box to broadcasters that could do live 2D to 3D conversion," said Simon Tidnam, VP, sales HDlogix. "We’re focusing on live first. An obvious example is sports. The second line of business would be comparable – do offline conversion and hand that back (to programmers)."

ImageIQ 3D incorporates algorithms such as real-time optical flow and image structure analysis capabilities to reconstruct the entire geometry of the scene contained within each video frame, without the need for any manual intervention, according to HDlogix.

HDlogix plans to formally unveil its technology at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show

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