3D HD Future Coming into Focus

The technology to bring full-capability 3D HD movies and sporting events into consumers' homes is expected to be available by 2010, though the business model has yet to be realized. That was the message according to programming and technology executives speaking on a panel at the OnScreen Media Summit Oct. 21 in New York. Production costs, bandwidth and consumer tendencies are some of the biggest challenges facing a large-scale rollout of 3D HD content in the living room.

"Production is obviously very expensive," said Jeff Cuban, executive VP of HDNet/Magnolia Pictures, noting that at this point only one truck, from NEP, is capable of doing a 3D HD live event. To do a quality 3D HD conversion for a movie costs millions of dollars, which is why Cuban says the rollout of 3D HD is likely to be seen with the testing of short-form content or pay-per-view events on satellite and cable.

"It'll be a while before you see people go deep into their library and start converting those films they have done in hi-definition," Cuban said.

But while the costs of quality 3D programming are still high, they may be decreasing. "I expect that other trucks will be built," said Steve Hellmuth, senior VP of operations and technology at NBA Entertainment. "The price point is coming down," he added. Hellmuth has been at the forefront of 3D HD production -- the NBA has aired four events in 3D HD, including the 2007 NBA All-Star Game, the first-ever live sports event in the format.

Hellmuth said he hopes to improve 3D graphics placement, hoping to incorporate graphics on the screen in a way that won't take the viewer out of the picture by losing their depth frame. Hellmuth touted the visual immediacy of sports in 3D, which he says makes announcers less important. "You don't need a constant patter of color and a play-by-play person on top of it," he said. "You don't need so much information from the announcers; you can see it."

Other sports, namely boxing and mixed-martial arts, could be a natural fit for 3D given the pace of the competition and the fact that fights are traditionally placed on pay-per-view tiers, which may be where 3D starts off.

"There's a strong possibility that that could be viable," Cuban said. He hopes for a time when cable operators jump on the 3D bandwagon. "I think if a cable operator is willing to pay us a sub fee for a dedicated 3D channel, then a lot of us will participate in that world."

But the idea of subscriber fees was not one that tickled Steve Necessary, VP of video product for Cox Communications, who joked that he almost acted like "the balloon boy" and threw up when he thought of the prospect of subscriber fees that applied to his entire client base. "That's not something that we're very fond of," Necessary said, though he added that "If enough consumer interest is generated, then, of course, we are interested."

Another hang-up for 3D HD rollout is that getting the signal into a home requires substantially greater bandwidth than a 2D HD signal, Necessary said. HD signals use up four times more bandwidth than a standard-def signal as it is. 3D may not be a top priority for many cable operators since they are still trying to find capacity for all the HD channels that are currently available.

While many of the panelists agreed that offering 3D as part of a cable subscriber's package may not happen immediately, they also agreed that the Internet may be a place to experiment with 3D content.

"I have no doubt that 3D can be delivered to a computer now, and in the future, computer models will be delivered with a screen that is 3D-ready," Hellmuth said. He implored technology vendors such as Panasonic to help franchises creating 3D content like the NBA with sponsorships.

Panasonic CTO Eisuke Tsuyuzaki said the company has TVs coming out early next year with full 3D HD capability. He also said the plans to develop a 3D HD standard for Blu-ray by next year is still moving according to plan.

Nagravision Senior VP of Consumer Electronic Team Ted Grauch said his company was focused on developing a content navigation system that gives users the chance to explore an interactive 3D TV guide. "At first, it's a design study but it's going to move to a real set-top box in the next few months," he said.

Cuban said it remains to be seen whether the novelty of 3D in consumer's homes (and the use of 3D glasses) will blossom into a long-term viable business, but he laid out a rosy picture of 3Ds future. "When it's all said and done, cost comes down, consumers show that they see value in it, then yes, there's a business model."

By David Tanklefsky, Broadcasting & Cable