3D TV Ready for Prime-Time?

South Korea is viewing the future through a pair of three-dimensional (3D) glasses, but debate continues on whether the picture is rosy or grainy. The immense success of James Cameron's film Avatar, packed with computer generated images, is proving to be a major inspiration for the Lee Myung-bak government, which vows to make the country an international hub for stereoscopic 3D technology and content.

According to recently-announced government initiatives, the country will have full-blown 3D broadcasting networks by 2013 and at least 20 percent of movies, television shows and video games will be produced in 3D by 2015. About 800 billion won (about $712 million) will be invested in the five-year-plan, which aims to create a 14-trillion-won market for the new technology and content. It will lead to the creation of about 40,000 new jobs.

The 3D airwaves will be first tested in October, when national television stations and government technology institutes begin to collaborate to start trial services for terrestrial 3D broadcasting in major Korean cities. Currently, Sky Life, a satellite television provider, is the only broadcaster to have launched trial 3D broadcasting services, in January.

The current technology requires users to wear special glasses, but by 2015, Korean viewers should be able to discard those clunky goggles, government officials said.

"The first priority would be the success of the trial operations of the terrestrial 3D television broadcasting later this year, which will be an important step in enabling Korean companies to lead in 3D broadcasting technology and in setting standards, thereby eventually allowing them to benefit from home-grown intellectual property," said Lee Ju-sik from KCC's radio policy bureau.

"We are going for a glasses-free approach, but to make a difference in this, we need to first establish leadership in the current, glasses-required 3D television efforts. Aside from promoting 3D entertainment content in television, movies and games, it would also be crucial to consider ways to exploit the technology for better solutions in medical services, construction, education and military use."

Shifting Landscape
The country says that it would be possible to train 6,000 3D-related personnel per year through a variety of schemes and will spend 30 billion won to build a test-bed to allow smaller companies access to more advanced, high-end equipment. The wealth in content could prove to make the difference in 3D competition, and policymakers are considering a variety of ways to encourage spending on producing 3D television shows, games and movies.

The ideas include providing larger export payment insurance for 3D-related content, and also promising to compensate about 50 percent of the expenses a company sustains from investing in 3D movies, games, and television dramas, up from the current level of 30 to 40 percent. Also crucial would be developing 3D-related products and technologies in shipbuilding, air transport, advertisement, medical services and education. Taxpayers' money spent on non-television 3D technologies could amount to 20 billion won in 2011, government officials said. The suggestions include developing equipment for real-time, 3D computed tomography (CT) scans, which is intended for use in dental treatments, 3D-based design and maintenance programs for ships and aircraft, and 3D-enabled e-learning programs for schools.

Government agencies will also be involved in adding wealth to the content pool. The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs is looking to produce a 3D map of the country, equipped with a depth of geographic information for government and private use, such as location-based Web and vehicle services. The Cultural Heritage Administration will produce 3D images of the country's national treasures and state-protected historical sites, while municipal governments will build theaters for 3D content within their districts.

The government is also planning to raise a 100 billion won fund to finance up-and-coming 3D technology companies and also facilitate 3D-related research and development (R&D). Software ability will be crucial for the advancement of the technology, and plans for a cross-industry platform are underway to improve the collaboration between device and equipment makers, and software developers.

Still Too Expensive, Clunky
Government officials and technology companies can go down a long list of reasons why 3D television is ready for prime time, but there seem to be just as many stumbling blocks. Companies like Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and LG Display are advanced in 2D to 3D conversion technology and displays, having long identified 3D television as the logical sequel to today's high-definition flat-screens.

However, the development in broadcasting technology and equipment has been lagging in comparison, as the country has been years behind especially considering more advanced nations like Britain and Japan, which have had an earlier start in 3D broadcasting over cable and satellite networks. And although policymakers and technology companies aim to set the pace in the glasses-free 3D television, they are the first to admit that the industry has yet to earn its stripes in holographic technology that would enable the next step.

Of course, many of the issues are in content, not the televisions or broadcasting technology, and it remains to be seen how long it would take for the local entertainment industry to achieve a wealth of 3D content.

"Korea lags behind in 3D software technology and content production, so it will be crucial that the facilities for making 3D video, combined with financial assistance and tax benefits, are available to achieve our goals," said Kang Suk-won, an official from the digital content bureau of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

"We certainly can't say time is on our side. We need more trained personnel in terms of producing 3D films and television programs, and there is a lot of room for growth in graphics and other core technologies. We have made progress, but the gap is still apparent between us and countries like the United States. We need our own Avatar."

Although the latest crop of 3D televisions are hitting the retail market at lower prices than expected, industry watchers say that the prices of the products has yet to fall to a point where it could truly motivate consumers, especially considering the dearth in content. Samsung Electronics priced its 46-inch 3D televisions at around 4.2 to 4.5 million and its 55-inch models at 5.8 to 6.1 million won. LG Electronics' 47-inch model is priced at around 4.7 million while, its 55-inch model will set you back about 6.3 million won.

The fact that consumers will be asked to wear those bulky 3D glasses all the time is another drawback, especially to those who need to wear glasses just to get out of bed.

Perhaps, the biggest question over 3D television, that Korean policymakers and technology firms haven't taken seriously - is 3D actually safe for the eyes?

However, there are technology experts in the U.S. and Japan, where the debate about optical safety is a lot more active, who say that 3D films and television may lead to eye strain and other related health problems. Although Korean electronics firms admit that the safety issue could prove to be a hindrance, there seems to be no meaningful discussion toward examining it, other than a vague government plan to support the development of technologies to reduce "fatigue" and "dizziness."

"We don't think dizziness will be an issue. Viewers may need some time to get comfortable at first, but they will eventually get there," said industry sources.

By Kim Tong-hyung, The Korea Times