Television Takes a Technological Leap to the Third Dimension

"Buzz Lightyear, Bono and Jonny Wilkinson are unlikely bedfellows, but together they are helping to push back the boundaries of TV and film production. Meanwhile, back on the sofa, viewers may soon need to buy yet another new telly.

Forty years after the inaugural colour TV broadcast was shown at the Riverside Studios, in west London, the same venue hosted another first this month: a live 3D test transmission beamed in by satellite. The event was England's RBS Six Nations rugby match against Scotland, shown to a select group of 200 people from across the sport, music and media industries.

The audience sat wearing special 3D glasses as BBC Sport, working in partnership with the 3D Firm, a consortium of specialist companies, sent pictures from Murrayfield to London, overlaid with a running commentary taken from Radio 5 Live.

By using only three cameras, the production had a minimalist feel and later one camera was withdrawn due to rain. As the audience emerged blinking from the auditorium, several likened the experience to that of being at a live game, and it was only the shocking quality of the rugby that led many people to stay in the bar for the second half.

Most of those present saw enough to suggest that live 3D was part of television's future, though how is unclear. There is speculation that major events such as the Olympics and World Cup will now be screened live in 3D on big screens in major cities.

But Aashish Chandarana, former Head of Innovation at BBC Sport, says the BBC has no plans for other live 3D transmissions. "This was a one-off. We don't have a strategy. It's important that we are always looking to see how we can improve things for audiences and this was about understanding the broadcast end of the chain. But what the market will take from this remains to be seen".

Current demand for 3D is coming mainly from the commercial sector, where a number of business models are emerging. However, as more content becomes available, the greater the push into the home market will be.

"For the time being screening will be limited to cinemas or bespoke locations," said Chris Dyer, operations director of Can Communicate, one of the firms in the 3D Consortium. He thinks that premium events, where the demand for tickets outstrips supply, lend themselves better to successful live 3D transmission. Some sporting big guns were present at the screening. Representatives from London 2012 and Fifa, football's world governing body, were among those donning the dark glasses. Francis Tellier, the man in charge of broadcasting the Fifa World Cup was hedging his bets: "This is not for today. But things move so fast, who knows what time-frame we are working toward?"

Sportswear company Reebok are using 3D as a promotional tool, creating a short film to showcase their sponsorship of boxer Amir Khan.

"We were interested in a way of getting closer to the action," says Steve Martin, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment. "It's expensive to create (but) Reebok were interested because they would get first-mover advantage – it's always about being first. Once it becomes commonplace, brands will move on to something else".

Likewise, cinema owners view 3D as a way of putting some distance between themselves and the burgeoning home-cinema market. According to Screen Digest, there were 47 digital 3D screens in the UK by the end of 2007, with forecasts suggesting this number will rise to 429 by 2011. Of the 1,298 digital 3D screens worldwide at the end of 2007, 75 per cent were in America. Many Hollywood studios have either recently released 3D movies, or have them in production. Disney-Pixar is re-releasing the 1995 hit animation film Toy Story in 3D, ahead of the third movie in the series, also in 3D, in 2010. Rival animation giant, DreamWorks, has committed to producing all its movies in 3D from 2009. U2 3D, a film of the Irish supergroup's live act, is currently in cinemas and Beowulf, starring Ray Winstone, got a pre-Christmas 3D release.

But it's the domestic television market that will determine whether 3D becomes the next big thing, or just another passing technology. And this may be a harder sell. There has been confusion and irritation over the roll-out of new widescreen high-definition TV sets, with many customers complaining that they bought an LCD set in anticipation of watching HD, only to be later advised that what they really needed was yet another expensive upgrade.

To get the full 3D effect, viewers will need to buy a stereoscopic television. Phillips has developed a prototype 132-inch 3D TV that offers an "out of screen" experience and does not require viewers to wear glasses. The first sets will come with a whopping £10,000 price tag.

"Now we need enough viewers to make it worthwhile," says Chris Dyer of the 3D consortium. Domestic sales will get a boost from the computer-games industry, which is producing compatible titles. "Once gamers have their screens they won't just want to play their games, they will want 3D content," says Dyer."

By Richard Gillis, The Independent