Europe Can Shape 3DTV from the Outset

Little 3DTV activity is expected from the broadcasters that make up the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) membership over the next three years but that does not stop the organisation planning for the evolution of this format. There is considerable interest in the format among its members, who responded to an EBU survey about their 3D needs with unprecedented speed. One of the reasons for that could be that European broadcasters realize they have an opportunity to shape 3D standards from the very beginning.

“With HDTV there was a well established HD market and standards, and that market was happening with or without Europe,” Andy Quested, Chair of the EBU 3D Group, recalls. “This time around everyone is at the same level and in some cases European service providers are ahead of others. So there is an opportunity to make sure we take a leading role in standards setting and production techniques.”

In a survey of its members, EBU asked whether current standards meet their current requirements for 3DTV and half answered yes. The figure also means that half the EBU membership believes it needs something else to meet its current needs.

What those future needs are has yet to be defined, however. Does it include Service Compatible 3DTV (where the 2D and 3D pictures are broadcast in the same video stream)? “We don’t know yet,” Quested admits. “Service Compatible is not out or in.”

The key to success, in Quested’s opinion, is that the broadcast industry must completely disengage emission (transmission) technology from production technology. This points to the use of discrete left eye and right eye views and low levels of compression for content that is being created and contributed for storage in archives. Quested warns that basing production standards on the current limitations of emission standards would be “completely wrong.”

“This is about making good 3D content and the requirement at the moment is how to create and preserve it longer term. That is something that really has to be established,” he states.

Quested does not believe that 3DTV is a ‘make or break’ service for any platform operator today. “Nobody is worried that they are going to fall behind and lose subscribers and lose audience if they do not have 3D. If that were the case people would be looking at what they want to do next but I don’t think it is. At the moment 3DTV is very interesting but it is a small market and it will be for some time.”

This means the industry has time to get the standards right and Frame Compatible means that services can be launched by broadcasters like BSkyB while the business of developing the long-term technologies for 3DTV goes ahead, assuming we do eventually need something beyond Frame Compatible.

Quested notes that while standardisation is never pain-free, the main arguments usually centre around issues of legacy and future proofing and one of the major advantages of the 3D market is that there is no legacy today. As long as Frame Compatible continues to dominate while the standards are being developed, that will remain the case.

Quested believes 2012 is the right time frame for public service broadcasters to think about 3DTV. And he points out that the market for 3DTV does not only cover domestic displays but also big screens and the public venue market, including pubs and clubs, which represents an exciting possibility for broadcasters.

“There is a nice, established market out there for big screens and shared experiences for 3D,” he points out. He thinks big screen experiences will be an important feature of 3DTV in the early days, with people more likely to watch a major event for a few hours in a bar than sit down all evening to watch 3DTV. He believes 3DTV will be an ‘appointment to view’ market for the next 6-9 months.

EBU’s role in the development of 3DTV includes helping to define what public broadcasters want, inputting into the standards creation process and eventually making recommendations on the implementation of 3DTV (based on standards) in Europe. One of the organisation’s goals is to encourage a viable, home-grown 3DTV market in Europe so that the television industry is not reliant on imported content. Another is to ensure a market for programme sales by make sure content can be exchanged between regions working closely with the key industry suppliers. The organisation is cooperating with SMPTE, DVB and ITU-R on 3D standardisation issues.

By John Moulding, Videonet