TV Aims for the Third Dimension

If you found the shift to digital TV confusing, and are still unsure whether you need high-definition TV, prepare for more bemusement: 3D TV is on the way - but with every possibility of a format war. And, worryingly, it could involve buying another new television. Taking TV into the third dimension has been a dream for decades. In the 1970s there were real broadcasts, which used the familiar red and green glasses. In 2006, France Telecom demonstrated its own version, using a fibre-optic connection. And just before Christmas, Sky confirmed it is involved, having made experimental recordings of a Ricky Hatton boxing match.

But the BBC is interested too. All of which makes it hard not to think that we'll end up with a format war. But will it be like VHS and Betamax, where one took over the world? Or DVD-Audio vs Super Audio CD, where "superior" music CD formats pushed by the record industry flopped?

Polarised positions
Sky is touting one version: it uses a technology that requires a new television, with a barely affordable price tag (about £2,500). Philips has a technology called Wow, which demands televisions with a price tag at least double that.

Technically, if not in price, however, Sky's version feels like a step backwards, as it uses glasses when there are glasses-free alternatives; however, those alternatives have led some users to report motion sickness and other drawbacks. Sky's glasses will be cheap, look like ordinary sunglasses (the 3D process relies on polarisation: one lens has horizontal stripes, the other vertical) and were reasonably comfortable over my ordinary prescription glasses.

Brian Lenz, Sky's head of product design and innovation, hopes to avoid a damaging format war. "We're announcing what we're doing now so we can avoid precisely that," he says, claiming that feedback on the Sky model has been positive. "We showed a Ricky Hatton fight and the audience loved it," he says.

John Zubrzycki, of the BBC's engineering department, says that the push at the moment is to make 3D TV display-independent, so it won't matter which sort of TV the viewer buys. Broadcasting the signal itself will require extra bandwidth - Zubrzycki estimates 20% more. "We want to broadcast 3D in a form that as wide a range as possible of televisions will be able to show," he says. "The standard needs to be 2D-compatible as well, because of the spectrum availability - there isn't a lot." The ideal, he believes, would be a handover more like when TV began to move into colour in 1968 than the digital switchover of today. People in the 1970s could watch every broadcast on a monochrome television; they just wouldn't see the colours until they changed their equipment. Zubrzycki's hope is that 3D content will be beamed to sets that will either display a 3D picture if they can decode it, or a 2D picture if they can't, without the viewer feeling pressured to upgrade.

One problem will be capturing the 3D image in the first place. Zubrzycki represents the BBC on the EU-backed 3d4you, and its focus is very much on getting beyond the stereoscopic model used in the cinema. "That enables a type of 3D that can be shown on the displays that are emerging, which allows you more than two views, so you have the ability to get a bit of parallax [the movement of the background relative to the foreground] if you move your head around." Parallax, he explains, "makes it easier for people who have one lazy eye to see in 3D because they can get around it by moving their head".

Passes at glasses
Zubrzycki stresses that his remit is in capture rather than display, but he understands that customers will be bewildered by the options if they want to buy into 3D early. Some methods use spectacles with shutters, others polarising lenses, and some don't use them at all. "There may even be something that's yet to be launched that will trump the lot, you can't really tell," he says.

Sky's Lenz is the first to admit that the Sky offering isn't going to work for everybody in the longer term, mostly because of the glasses. "Glasses-free is the long-term objective," he says. Cost-sensitivity is another constraint. Sky, at least, is happy that the polarised glasses only cost a couple of pounds to replace if someone sits on them, unlike some of the more sophisticated competition. It's also important, Lenz suggests, that customers will be able to use their existing Sky HD boxes to store 3D content, needing only to upgrade their television sets. Protecting people from the need to spend more than is necessary is a vital part of the strategy, he stresses.

None of this will matter if the schedules aren't filled with interesting content in 3D. And there isn't much sign of that yet. The BBC, for example, still produces some of its "flagship" programming, such as EastEnders and Doctor Who, in standard definition only, despite the emergence of the BBC HD channel. BS11, a Japanese broadcaster, has been broadcasting 20 minutes a day of 3D since March 2008, but this isn't going to have everyone buying up new sets in the middle of a recession. The BBC confirmed to the Guardian that there was no strategy for rolling out 3D programming, as it's too early; it was also unable to say when some of the programmes mentioned above would go into HD.

Treat with care
For younger people, however, 3D isn't just about television programming. Paul Donovan, a senior analyst with the research company Gartner, says he believes there is a real opportunity in the games market. "In games you start off with a computer-generated image, so obviously multiple camera angles are not an issue."

The other possibility - suggested by almost everyone pushing 3D TV - is "treating" older films and TV to create 3D versions. Donovan is sceptical: the nearest precedent - colourisation, in the 1980s - was a flop. "I have DVDs on which there's an alternative colour version of a black-and-white film and I haven't even watched it. Why would you?" Many consumers will feel the same, he says, about 3D on older programmes and films.

The other precedent is, of course, the 3D broadcasting experiment of the 1970s, which failed completely. Having the BBC around to experiment without pressure for an immediate broadcast may help this time; Zubrzycki points out that the BBC made the first drama in HD in 1987. "Maybe we'll be making something that people won't watch for decades yet," he says.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, major manufacturers including Sony, LG, Panasonic and Samsung showed off their latest 3D TV technologies. In the main part these systems still need viewers to wear glasses, and 3D filming requires extra cameras - meaning the technology was usually touted as an extra for special events or animated films.

What's certain, and appears to be agreed by all players, is that the consumer doesn't want to be caught in yet another format war. In an ailing economy it's by no means certain that consumers will be willing or able to buy expensive new kit even if they want to - especially if there's a risk of buying the wrong £2,500-plus set. 3D TV has everything to play for - but everything to lose too.

By Stuart O'Connor, The Guardian