The Path Towards 3DTV

Stereoscopic 3DTV could be the next home entertainment blockbuster, the logical sequel to today's high-definition flat-screen TVs. But the path to 3DTV winds through more twists and turns than the road to the Emerald City, passing through forests of alternative file formats, compression schemes, display technologies and patents.

Market analyst firm Insight Media tracked as many as 22 unique approaches to 3D displays, and it's still early in the technology.

No one has yet figured out a low-cost way to deliver stereo 3D to LCDs. What's more, many CE giants, as well as key technology providers of digital cinema, have yet to announce their products and directions for 3DTV. Others say any approach that necessitates glasses — a requirement for high-resolution 3D images today — will never be more than a niche with consumers at home.

Nevertheless, the hunt for a mainstream standard is on, driven largely by rising interest from Hollywood. At least four major industry groups have formed this year to plough a route forward.

"You are seeing a lot of overlapping activity here because everyone sees this problem," said Chris Chinnock, president of Insight Media, who helped found the 3D@Home Consortium, an ad hoc industry group.

Open Task Force
"3D pictures are showing good returns at the box office and as a result, studios want to put these movies into the home market," said Wendy Aylsworth, senior VP of technical operations at Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Aylsworth is also VP of engineering for the Society of Motion Picture and TV Engineers (SMPTE), one of Hollywood's top tech groups. In July, SMPTE called for anyone interested to join a task force to investigate the possibility of defining a mastering standard for 3DTV content that could be carried over broadcast, cable, satellite, packaged disks or the Internet.

More than 160 people from 80 companies signed up for the first meeting of the SMPTE task force held last August. The group is expected to submit a report to SMPTE leaders within six months. A follow-on effort to draft a standard for 3D content formats could take another 18 to 30 months, Aylsworth said.

Andy Setos, president of engineering at Fox Entertainment Group, said he is not sure SMPTE is the right group for the job due to its historical focus on production issues. "We haven't identified the best forum for where this work can be done yet, and there could be an opening for a new forum," Setos said.

One alternative, the 3D@Home Consortium, which counts Disney, Philips, Samsung and Sony among its 30 members, aims to draft needs and requirements statements for 3DTV. "We hope to do a lot of the legwork for people like SMPTE," Chinnock said.

Sorting Out Issues
Separately, the Entertainment Technology Centre (ETC) at the University of Southern California (USC) has formed its own 3D working group chaired by a representative from Dolby Labs. It aims to define the core issues involved in driving 3D content into the home.

The work at the USC lab complements that of SMPTE's new task force, said David Wertheimer, executive director of ETC, which was the official test site for the digital cinema standard set in 2005. The USC lab, founded in 1993 by Star Wars director George Lucas, has backing from a number of Hollywood studios and a handful of technology companies.

ETC is asking vendors to install their 3DTV systems in its content lab "so studios can have a place in Los Angeles where they can bring their to-be-released content to view it using existing and emerging 3D displays, formats and technologies," said Wertheimer.

Europe hosts two government-funded 3DTV groups. The 3D4YOU program aims to define capture, coding and format specifications for 3DTV. Launched in February, it includes the BBC, France Telecom, Philips and Thomson. The OSIRIS (Original System for Image Rendition via Innovative Screens) Project, has gathered nine companies including Barco and Thomson to explore 2D and 3D projection technologies in a nearly $19 million program slated to end in December 2009.

The Blu-ray Disc Association is quietly working on its position on stereo 3D but has yet to make a public statement. Blu-ray discs could be the first way stereo 3D content is delivered to the home, because broadcast methods generally lack the bandwidth required to send separate high-resolution images for left and right eyes.

Whoever sets the content standard, it must be backward-compatible with today's 2D capture, production and display systems, said Setos. "We want to send one stream of bits and have it decimated for either 2D or 3D viewing, just as we are moving to sending out only HD video and letting terminals derive standard definition video from it."

Is It Time?
Beyond the content work, systems makers need to set standards for reading the formats and displaying the content on various kinds of TVs and devices. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has called a meeting to determine whether it's time for members to set a 3DTV standard that could cover TVs, STBs and Blu-ray players.

"I expect just about everybody who makes TVs, as well as some broadcasters, chipset vendors and 3D technology providers, will be there," said Brian Markwalter, VP of technology and standards at CEA. "We want to see if this is the right time to create a standard or not, and there are arguments on both sides."

Setos cautioned against display standards at a time when new technologies such as OLEDs are still emerging. "We don't want to preclude any display innovations," he said.

Optimists say industry standards could emerge in less than three years. Others fear it could take as long as a quarter-century—the time it took to move HDTV from concept to retailers' shelves.

"My big concern is about deploying something prematurely and having it fail—that's the big danger," said Setos. "It's a dicey game the outcome of which I can't predict, but we're putting a lot of energy behind it."

"The studios are calling the shots and doing a lot of subjective and objective testing in their labs," said Nicholas Routhier, CEO of Sensio Technologies Inc., one of many relatively small companies promoting unique 3D technologies. "The studios made the key decisions on DVD, Blu-ray and digital cinema" and it will be the same with 3DTV, he said.

With the rise of 3D movies commanding higher ticket prices at theaters "there is a lot of pressure building internally on the studios" to define 3DTV, said Ethan Schur, director of product marketing for TDVision Systems Inc., another contender to provide the underlying technology. "A year or so ago studios weren't that interested in the home market at all, but now these people have turned around."

Indeed, Insight Media has compiled a list of more than 80 3D movies recently released or in the works—including 3D versions of the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings series. Hollywood sees a lot of money being left on the table for premium home video versions of these films.

Animation studios such as Dreamworks and Pixar have said within less than a year all their new releases will include 3D versions. "They are already working with 3D databases, so it's relatively easy to render a stereoscopic version," said Chinnock.

Technology Shift
At the Intel Developer Forum in August, Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg said stereo 3D marks a third era in entertainment technology, following the shifts to talkies and colour. Top Hollywood directors including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Peter Jackson are working on live-action movies in stereo 3D.

"In the next few years they will make some of the best films using these new techniques," Katzenberg said.

3D live-action features such as Journey to the Centre of the Eart and concerts from U2 and Hannah Montana point to other possibilities. "Eventually you will be able to watch the Yankees vs. the Red Sox live in 3D at your local theatre," said Chinnock.

About 2,000 of an estimated 100,000 theaters worldwide can show 3D content today using technology mainly from companies such as RealD and Dolby Labs. Both companies are expected to launch 3DTV products for the home, but neither has made any announcement yet and both declined to be interviewed for this story.

In January, RealD hired Koji Hase — winner of a technical Emmy in 1999 for his work as chair of the DVD Forum which helped establish the DVD format — to be president of worldwide CE, charged with helping to launch a home products business for the company.

"What's happened in digital cinema will have an impact on the home, so RealD will have an edge," said Richard Doherty, principal of The Envisioneering Group, a technology consulting firm.

To date most big CE firms have stayed mum on the topic of 3DTV. "I think they see this as the next wave beyond HDTV, so it's strategic and they have stuff in the labs, but they want to keep quiet about it," said Chinnock.

"There is an attitude of wait-and-see; people are cautious," said Routhier, who has delivered development kits for the company's technology to eight TV makers.

Mitsubishi and Samsung have released early 3DTV sets working with technology providers such as DDD Group plc. They generally use an interlacing algorithm called "smooth picture," applicable to their DLP- and plasma-based sets. But smooth picture uses a checkerboard pattern of pixels that cannot readily be compressed and sometimes requires extra hardware.

More proprietary experiments are on the way, potentially pushing 3DTV sales from less than 300,000 in 2007 to 28 million by 2012, according to Insight Media. Plasma sets using smooth picture will represent most initial efforts, but once low-cost LCD methods are hammered out they should dominate long term.

With so many players, it's unclear who holds the key intellectual property for 3DTV. But if the technology becomes as pervasive as many predict, those patents will someday be a gold mine.

Source: EE Times India