3-D is Real for Telecoms Players Eager to Enter the Market

Operators' strength in broadband means they are well placed to offer 3-D TV, with the Internet providing one of the easiest ways to deliver the content. The technology is already in place for the mass-market rollout of 3-D TV, video-on-demand and movies, and several operators have already carried out trials.

France Telecom has emerged as an early player in the market. The operator says 3-D TV will be key to the services it will be able to deliver to homes when its fiber network is completed. Telefonica trialed the technology in Spain and Brazil last year. And BSkyB and the BBC in the UK have undertaken 3-D trials with the 3D at Home Consortium, which helps facilitate communication between all the standards bodies involved in 3-D.

In Japan, significant progress has been made with 3-D, which is available on satellite; in the US, a major effort is under way to digitize movie theaters so they can show 3-D content. Efforts are also being made to increase the production of content and agree on standards.

"I would not be surprised to see Internet delivery of content to homes in 3-D for gaming, special events and movies in a year - the first bit of that this year," says Chris Chinnock, president of Insight Media and a board member of the 3D at Home Consortium.

France Telecom is preparing its network for the arrival in Europe of 3-D-capable TV sets, which are already on sale in the US. The French incumbent is looking to develop a relationship with 3-D movie theaters to give it a broader platform for the service. It is producing its first 3-D movie, based on Bernard Lenteric's La Nuit des Enfants Rois (The Night of the Child Kings), and expects to receive the initial images by 2010.

"As a telecoms operator, [we think] the digital movie theater is an opportunity for us to feed it by digital access using fiber links to deliver movies to theaters," says Philippe Delbary, France Telecom's corporate project manager for 3-D services.

As an extension of showing 3-D movies in theaters, Delbary says, FT wants to screen 3-D soccer matches in these venues. FT has a privileged position in France in that it holds the country's soccer-broadcasting rights.

"At Roland Garros [the French Open tennis tournament], we demonstrated that it is already possible to do 3-D without any significant network changes [to] our usual settop boxes and our usual networks," Delbary says. "FT is still working on the quality and options for the settop box."

Bjorn Teuwsen, the marketing and communications manager for Philips 3D Solutions, which provides 3-D displays, content creation, conversion tools and technology licensing, agrees that easy distribution of 3-D content over existing infrastructure will be the key factor for the success of 3-D TV.

The delivery of 3-D movies through a video-on-demand or pay-per-view model works in general for broadcasters and cable, satellite and telecoms players. But business models still need to be developed for 3-D at home.

3-D movement gathers pace
3-D is not new, but the momentum behind it has grown significantly in the past two years and continues to increase. Several factors are responsible for this development. In terms of technology, there has been a vast improvement in, for example, the quality of the glasses used for viewing 3D TV, and in both the volume and quality of 3-D content being produced.

Many movie theaters in the US and Europe are being converted to digital cinemas, so they can be easily upgraded to show 3-D content. The arrival of Blu-ray discs, which can hold twice as many images as DVDs, has also encouraged content production, despite the slow take-up of the discs.

Whereas a lack of infrastructure to deliver the service delayed the penetration of high-definition TV, 3-D TV is not likely to suffer the same fate: Its delivery is focused on using HD infrastructure, and the service is therefore not likely to take 20 years to make its mark, as was the case with HD.

The fiber networks being rolled out in Europe, Asia and the US are crucial to the take-up of 3-D, because the service places a significant bandwidth burden on networks. France Telecom expects that broadcasting 3-D TV to a flat-screen TV will require between 50Mbps and 90Mbps of bandwidth.

The availability of 3-D content through various channels, and via cable, satellite and fiber and over-the-air broadcasts, will be a critical driver for consumers buying 3-D-capable TV sets. The technology is close to being ready, and content producers are therefore making a significant effort to increase their 3-D output.

In the US, Pixar and Dreamworks announced in 4Q08 that in future all their content would be shot in 3-D. Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg recently confirmed that all of the Hollywood studios are involved in the resurgence of 3-D and have projects under way. There is a clear push in Hollywood to make 3-D movies, mostly animation, and the announcement by Pixar and others sends a strong message about the companies' intentions.

Live events, especially sports and music, represent a major opportunity and are leading the way in 3-D broadcasting. Sports networks such as ESPN and sports leagues such as the National Basketball Association, NASCAR and the National Football League have been trialing live events filmed in 3-D for two years.

In the US, movie theaters charge US$6 on average for a regular movie ticket. With live 3-D for sports events such as the NBA or concerts such as by Hannah Montana - a singer character popular with children who is played by actress Miley Cyrus - they can sell a ticket for between US$20 and US$25. Several live broadcasts of sports events in 3-D in the US have taken place in more than 80 digital cinemas to paying customers.

Live action or film capture is more difficult and presents its own problems. But much progress has been made in the past two years, and by the time 3-D TV sets are more widely available and affordable, many of the problems will have been solved. The good news is that the industry recognizes that this is a three-to-five-year transition period for stakeholders to learn what is effectively a new trade.

Standards still to be defined
3-D TV is headed in two directions, depending on whether special glasses are needed to view the content. For 3-D TV without glasses, no standard have been created yet, and although TVs are being developed that do not require the use of glasses, they are still three to five years from being widely available and reasonably priced. In movie theaters, there is still no technology that allows for 3-D without glasses, says France Telecom's Delbary.

In the US, 3-D TV is possible, and is set to grow rapidly in the coming two to three years. This is because it can be fed using media centers, which have not seen the same level of adoption in Europe. A complete media center offers integration of all forms of media, entertainment and communication functions received by terrestrial, satellite and cable, or streamed from the Internet into one common user-friendly GUI (graphical user interface). The system is controlled via a remote control or wireless keyboard in the living room. Some video-game consoles (PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360), with their network services, can act as a media center devices by default.

The capabilities of media centers have enabled companies to get around the problem of various standards and formats, because software programs can organize images to suit the medium - TV, for instance. That's why the NBAs of the world have been broadcasting and shooting in 3-D, says Delbary.

3-D TV sets that require glasses to view content are being delivered in the US and Japan; in Europe, the sets have not made it to market but are expected in the coming 12-24 months. There are, however, 3-D-capable displays that cost about EURO300 (US$377), a much more affordable price for most and an opportunity for telecoms operators to seize.

There's clearly a lot to do, but the industry is moving fast. More content needs to be in place, as do a delivery pipeline with a set of standards or agreements, screens and a business model. Production standards are also needed to cover cable, satellite, mobile, Internet and terrestrial broadcast; standards are likewise needed for home distribution via Blu-ray, TV, STB and PC. The industry consensus is that it will take two years to conclude the standardization process for 3-D TVs that require the use of glasses.

By Mohammed Hamza, Informa Telecoms and Media