Hollywood, TV Makers Face Off Over 3-D Content

TV makers are frustrated by the slow release of stereo 3-D Blu-ray disks, one of the factors holding back sales of stereo 3-D TVs. Meanwhile TV makers are trying to cut the relatively high costs of 3-D TVs, another major factor holding back sales.

TV makers had anticipated sales of more than 2.1 million 3-D sets in 2010, but sales trends indicate actual sales will be less than 1.6 million, according to figures from the Consumer Electronics Association. The shortfall represents what could be a billion dollars in sales.

Hollywood studios and broadcasters are under pressure to release more 3-D TV content to perk up sales. So far few 3-D Blu-ray titles have been released for general distribution; a limited number of disks are available sold as bundles with 3-D-enabled Blu-ray players and TVs.

Hollywood studios see a big market for Blu-ray 3-D titles, but they are holding back general releases until there is a bigger market of players and TVs. "We haven’t reached a critical mass in homes" to broadly release 3-D disks, said Jim Mainard, head of production development/technology at Dreamworks, one of the studios who have pushed the move to 3-D TV.

It's a chicken-and-egg situation in which TV makers feel they have the disadvantage, claiming there is not enough content to drive sales of systems.

"There is not enough content right now," admitted Mainard. "Sometime in 2011, you will start to see a lot of these titles free up, not just from Dreamworks but a lot of other companies," he said.

"There will be enough content in 2011, you will see a 3-D Blu-ray section in your local DVD stores next year," he said. "I would say we are probably a year away—it's not this holiday season, but the next one before we start to see any pick up here," he added.

A Sony studios spokeswoman said her company and others have put "a number" of 3-D Blu-ray titles into general release online and at retail. "A number of major studio Blu-ray 3D releases are coming on November 16 and more will be released before the end of the year" including five Sony titles, she added.

Meanwhile live sports content is moving ahead, but faces many challenges. It takes as many as 200 people and an entire separate production flow from cameras on up to record a sports event in 3-D.

"We are spending more than twice what it takes to do normal 2-D HD event" to capture a sporting event in 3-D, it’s a huge financial commitment," said Bryan Burns, vice president for strategic business planning and development at ESPN which is leading the charge in 3-D sports.

"We are doing a game a week and struggling to get there," he said, projecting broad adoption of 3-D TV sets could take three to five years.

Burns called for the industry to support ESPN's efforts. Consumer electronics companies are said to be providing ESPN equipment for free or at low cost to help jumpstart the need for content.

Mainard of Dreamworks suggested the studio has algorithms and other technology to enable broadcasters to share some tasks across 2-D and 3-D production equipment.

Cutting 3-D TV Costs
While TV makers lobby for more content, they also realize they must cut costs of 3-D TV sets. The sets current carry a premium of about $400 for stereo 3-D, about $300 of that for displays with 240 Hertz refresh rates seen as a baseline for 3-D video quality, said David Naranjo, director of product development for Mitsubishi Electric's TVs.

A video interview with Naranjo is available online.

3-D glasses also represent a significant cost. Today TV makers pair proprietary displays and glasses that cannot be used with other vendor's TV sets.

The CEA is defining a standard protocol for 3-D glasses, initially over infrared. It will also develop versions of the protocol for RF links such as Bluetooth. TV makers hope to field such glasses late next year as one way to ease the costs consumers pay for 3-D.

Getting rid of glasses is not an option for the short term. Although glasses-free technologies have been developed for small screens of 20 inches and below, they are expensive, have narrow viewing angles and can degrade 2-D video, said Dan Schinasi, a director of HDTV product planning at Samsung.

"The lenticular and parallel barrier technologies used today are dead ends," said Mainard who has a long background in stereo 3-D starting at TRW. "The industry could field glasses-free 3-d TVs "in 5-10 years, but they will be based on a different technology," he said.

TV makers will be challenged to reduce costs in the near term. They are trying to put both 3-D and Web connectivity into their latest high end sets, both generating more complexity and cost.

Despite the shortfall in 3-D TV, consumer electronics overall still appears to be on track for three percent growth this year, said Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis at CEA. Thank Apple and Amazon who are driving new categories such as tablets and e-readers.

Tablets are expected to generate $4.3 billion in revenues in 2010 and e-readers are forecast to deliver another billion in sales this year. "If tablets are 40 percent stronger than we expect it would more than compensate for the shortfall in 3-D TV," said Koenig.

Nearly 75 percent of consumers in a recent poll said they plan to buy CE gear as holiday presents in 2010, a record high generating hope about a strong finish to the year, he said.

By Rick Merritt, EE Times