3D HD: The Next Big Entertainer, Money Maker

As high-definition (HD) content takes a foothold around the globe, already broadcasters are looking for the next generation of HD-related entertainment. An early technology and revenue leader looks to be 3-D programming. The concept of 3-D HD broadcasts has been around for more than a decade, but developments in the sector have ramped up within the past few years.

In March, Eutelsat Communications provided capacity on its Eurobird 3 satellite to broadcast a live music performance that was filmed, transmitted and projected in stereo 3-D HD on a cinema screen and on prototype models of stereo 3-D HDTVs. OpenSky managed the encoding, decoding and projection of the event, while dBw managed the shooting and production.

In June, GlobeCast, in collaboration with Orange Labs, delivered a live 3-D HD feed of a performance of Don Giovanni from the Rennes Opera house in Brittany, France, via satellite to cinemas in France. The multi-camera operation, organized by Orange Labs and filmed by AMP, involved combining two video signals into a single feed using a Sensio 3-D Cinema encoder. A GlobeCast satellite newsgathering vehicle outside the opera house delivered the feed to a pair of cinemas in Paris, as well as theaters in Avignon and Brest.

With these demonstrations becoming more common, 3-D HD entertainment, especially broadcasts of live events in movie theaters, looks poised to become that next great entertainment medium and revenue producer for the broadcasting sector.

Technology Development
While the roots of 3-D HD can be traced to the 20th century, the pace of development has ramped up since 2007, when International Datacasting Corp. and Sensio Technologies Inc. signed a letter of intent to develop a satellite solution to broadcast 3-D digital and e-cinema. The Superflex Pro Cinema, is IDC’s family of modular products that can be configured to deliver file-based movies and live events over a broadband satellite network, includes the 3-D Live encoder and decoder, with Sensio 3-D technology. The unit supports 2D and 3-D live and pre-recorded events.

"You do not need Sensio technology to display a 3-D movie," says IDC CEO Ron Clifton. "That comes from Hollywood. The files already are divided into left and right eye, and when you play it out on a projector/server combo, it has technology as well. This works with any scheme — RealD, Dolby, XpanD, Master Image. All of these guys are fighting for market share. All have pluses and minuses. In the United States, RealD is the leader. In Europe, Dolby has done most of our 3-D. XpanD is coming into Europe, and Master Image started in South Korea but now is strong in the United States. With that kind of variety, all you have to be is interoperable."

The Sensio technology comes into play with live entertainment, which many are targeting as a new revenue stream for broadcasters and theaters. The traditional way of delivering live content is to broadcast separate streams and combine them at the receive site. However, this takes up twice as much bandwidth and opening up a host of potential problems throughout the delivery chain. Some of those problems could be alleviated by combining the two HD images prior to transmission, but that generally worked with "infinite bandwidth and lots of money," says Clifton.

Sensio patented a technology to compress the left and right eye HD images into a single transmission at the source site. "This is done before encoding into MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 right after the camera," says Clifton. "It’s done in a way that if you look at the left and right images, there is a lot of redundancy that is shifted a little. If you don’t compress it vertically, you can get 1080p-type HD resolution. If you only compress it left and right and not up and down, it’s virtually lossless. The idea is if you compress it to the same bandwidth as 2D, you can use all the same infrastructure for video grabbing and transmission. This allows for the transmission of 3-D stereoscopic images over existing HD infrastructure."

Harmonic also is looking at 3-D offerings, though its approach may be considered a bit more cautious than the one others have taken, says Ian Trow, the company’s director of broadcast solutions. "One of the things that attracted us to HD was the basic requirement to sync to the existing channel. Our 8000 series of encoders have the ability to take anything and synchronize whatever 2-channel implementation people want to use. The encoder can sync two views of the piece of content. We really started to explore it by talking to broadcasters just to see what their interest is and offering the ability to use 3-D distribution encoders. We’ve been speculatively looking at it and have had a number of big broadcasters approach us. We think a lot of people looking at 3-D are concentrating on the production aspect — what looks good, and most are concerned with cinematic release. We want to see the demand and then see if the market wants us to develop this functionality. I have no doubt broadcasters will find a model that will work, because judging by people’s reaction to films, there is a very clear market there. What clouds the issue at the moment is that most of the engaging 3-D content takes significant post-production work."

There is no real standard for 3-D HD technology, but the industry is moving forward, says Clifton. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers is setting up some standard, focused mainly on direct-to-home networks, but IDC’s work in the cinema sector will help the company there as well. "People are buying 3-D-enabled TVs now. The question is, ‘Can you get ahead of the competition?’ The industry is working on this."

The initial revenue streams from 3-D HD content are expected to come from cinemas, but with many broadcasters still trying to find their return on investment from their upgrade to HD, providing 3-D HD content over an existing infrastructure is key to helping the market develop, says Trow. "The speculation is that 3-D will be a low-key launch. Broadcasters will try it in the same way they tried HD. They will see what works and see what kind of revenue model they could try before upgrading to it. A lot of it is trying to test user reaction to it without making a huge user investment or ripping up existing infrastructure.

IDC and Sensio forged the partnership to target the market for broadcasting live 3-D sporting and cultural events, as well as movie files, to the international digital and e-cinema market. In 2008, IDC began working with Cinedigm, creating a product dubbed CineLive that combined IDC and Sensio components to convert live 2D and 3-D feeds delivered via satellite into on-screen entertainment. Today, the technology is part of the largest 3-D satellite-delivered network around the globe, says IDC CEO Ron Clifton. CineLive has been installed in 100 markets in the United States, and a network in Europe has between 40 and 50 sites. "We have done a lot of 2D live events, mostly the Royal Opera out of London and the Met out of New York. We broadcast 1:30 p.m. matinees in New York, which begin at 7:30 p.m. in Europe. It’s a perfect time. We were one of the early adopters of the technology, and we have proven that digital cinema is important."

Hollywood has predicted that they will be around 24 3-D movies produced per year, and theaters will have to make some investment in infrastructure to handle that. But to help recoup that investment, as well as make up for lost revenue due to attendance declines, the live event market will offer a new revenue stream for theater operators. The showing of live events from around the globe, whether concerts, operas or sports events, provides the theater owners a chance to charge a premium price for a special event. The other good news for the satellite communications sector is that the delivery of live events will require satellite bandwidth, says Clifton. "Once they have made the investment, they will be looking for more revenue — religious events, sports events, etc. You can charge a little bit more for that, and that’s what is driving the market."

Bryan McGuirk, senior vice president of media services for SES Americom-New Skies, believes 3-D HD, which will involve two cameras filming at 1080p60, will be the next big move for the sector. SES Americom-New Skies was involved with the broadcasting of 3-D episode of the TV show Chuck that was broadcast after the Super Bowl, and there have been 3-D events such as the broadcasts of the U.S. college football championship game and performances of the Met broadcasts to theaters around the country. "I see it as part of a continuum — just as HD seemed far away a few years ago. I was on planning team for launching HD at NBC in 1999. A few years later, we have huge bundles of HD being sold across the industry. We have gone from HD as a novelty to HD as must-have building block of technology. We see the same thing happening with advanced HD. We’re dreaming about it today. When is 3-D going to come? We see the building blocks for the same type of evolution, and it begins with things like movies."

McGuirk has no doubt that the broadcasting of live 3-D HD events will be the way to fill underutilized theaters, and the growth of 3-D movies will be a catalyst. "3-D movies doing well at the box office. To date, there are 11 HD films in CGI animation releases. Some are more live action like Harry Potter, and there are movies like Up, Toy Story coming, Ice Age 3, and Monsters Vs. Aliens. Those 11 features have created, in essence, an industry in the theatrical business around HD. From what I’ve been told, they are getting nice premiums per seat for this type of release, which is what drives expansion of the genre. Theaters are getting more dollars per seat. You create some really good opportunities for the theaters, which can be 10 to 12 screen sites that are challenged by downtime."

The key to expansion of more forms of 3-D HD entertainment will be creating a pipeline for the content, says McGuirk. "The nice thing is that 3-D equipment is being rolled out. Texas Instruments has a product coming to market around their DLP technology. It requires special active shutter glasses and creates a really high-quality experience. From where we sit in the distribution chain for satellite, this will be a very good for business that creates opportunities for content partners as it uses more satellite bandwidth. Also, distribution chain technology will advance in ways that will reduce the amount of bandwidth required to deliver the content, inevitably it’s going to be double or more the bandwidth for delivery, so it’s good for satellite," he says.

In the Asia-Pacific region, HD content is in the early stages of growth, but already companies like SingTel are looking at 3-D content, spurred on in part by government interest, says Titus Yong, SingTel’s vice president of satellite. "We’ve seen the transition from [standard definition] to HD, and we believe that the next evolution would be 3-D. In Asia, there are many cinemas equipped with 3-D screens. We are also looking into 3-D digital cinema distribution using SingTel’s hybrid delivery solutions via satellite and MPLS services," he says.

Beyond the Theater
While the theater opportunity is at the forefront of most of the 3-D HD revenue-producing efforts to date, the broadcasting sector also has visions for 3-D HD in other areas, both entertainment and scientific. "From a market perspective, we believe the two major opportunities for satellite-delivered 3-D are digital cinema with live events and direct-to-home," Clifton says. "2D direct-to-home networks are eager to go to 3-D. What is driving this is Hollywood is making a commitment to produce 3-D events. There is some frustration because theaters are not moving fast enough to take advantage of all this. Pretty soon, the home market guys will be wondering how to do it. The technology is there."

Trow believes that it will take some time before 3-D becomes accepted in the home. "The cinema and home viewing environments are very, very different. Delivery to the cinema is far easier than delivery to the home, especially when you take into account the infrastructure put into place for HD. This is a big challenge technologically and standards-wise to get the same kind of experience people appreciate in the cinema to the home. BSkyB and ESPN are experimenting with it, and for good reason, because if you can make it work, it’s a good draw, particularly for live event coverage. I think they probably will do it as an overlay to their existing infrastructure rather than proposing a new set-top box and new transmission systems," he says.

In late July, Sky announced that it plans to launch the United Kingdom’s first 3-D channel in 2010. The decision to launch the service was based off record growth of its Sky+HD service, and the 3-D content will consist of movies, sports and other entertainment broadcast using Sky’s existing HD infrastructure and be available via the current generation of Sky+HD. To watch 3-D, customers will need a 3-D-ready TV, which are expected to be on sale in the United Kingdom beginning in 2010. "3-D is a genuinely ‘seeing is believing’ experience, making TV come to life as never before. Just like the launch of digital, Sky+ and HD, this is latest step in our commitment to innovating for customers," Brian Sullivan, managing director of Sky’s Customer Group, says.

McGuirk expects gaming to drive 3-D technology into the home. "Everyone who got the [Sony] Playstation 3 got a 1080p player. Then TV showed up to allow the experience to be played out. I think 3-D games will be the be obvious next step because of the ease of conversion of CGI graphics into 3-D. It will feel like you are fully immersed in the game, and I think people will pay for that."

SingTel also is a believer in video games as part of the 3-D HD future, and Yong sees the delivery of consumer 3-D content coming through fiber-to-the-home. "This will enable consumer to enjoy real 3-D games and movies without glasses. With glassless 3-D technology, we could also bring future education to the next level. Just imagine, if we can bring real 3-D simulation into the classroom for complex modules such as biology, engineering and architectural technology, we’ll be able to nurture more doctors and engineers in the near future. Apart for this, there are many direct applications we are exploring. For example hotels, banks, shopping malls, airports, advertising billboards, just to name a few."

IDC also is involved in non-entertainment possibilities for the technology. In June, IDC unveiled that its Superflex 3-D Live Encoders and Decoders with Sensio technology were used in a live 3-D demonstration of a robotic surgical system held at the 9th Annual Conference of Laparoscopic Gastrointestinal Surgery Group in South Korea. The surgery was performed using the da Vinci S HD Surgical System, which was developed by Intuitive Surgical and integrates HD 3-D endoscopy with robotic technology, and broadcast in live 3-D using technology developed for digital cinema, took place at the Korean National Cancer Institute and was transmitted through the Hyper Research Network, a terrestrial IP network, to the conference site at the Korean National Information Society Agency, where doctors and medical students were participating in a session on surgical techniques. IDC’s Korean partner, Digipeg Corp., provided the technology used for the capture and broadcast of the demonstration. "The use of off-the-shelf 3-D live broadcast technology as a real-time diagnostic tool for the medical profession as well as a teaching tool for doctor training has now been successfully demonstrated," says Clifton. "The same benefits of bandwidth compression and HD video quality inherent in the Sensio 3-D technology for digital cinema applies equally well for this application. We are happy to see the market potential for our 3-D products expanding and that our technology can have this kind of positive impact on the health care profession."

By Jason Bates, Satellite Today