3D streaming is coming to your smart TV
29th May 2011 | 07:00
But how long until 3D streaming movies arrive?
The appearance of the latest 3D blockbusters would have been a genuine game-changer, but the collection of DreamWorks film trailers and other short 3D clips could still give some consumers their first taste of 3D in the home.
Movie streaming in 2D is well underway, with most smart TVs from the major manufacturers hosting either Lovefilm or Acetrax - or both - but 3D streaming is only available from Virgin Media's FilmFlex service, and even there it's limited to ten or so 3D movies.
Will other brands follow Samsung's example and bring 3D streaming to living rooms?
"We do have the capability to do it, but we've not announced services as yet," Steve Lucas, consumer AV & imaging product specialist at Panasonic, confirmed to TechRadar.
"The likelihood is that we'll start with a demo channel streamed on Viera Connect with Panasonic-created content."
More 'goldfish-in-a-bowl' 3D, then, though it does seem harsh to expect TV manufacturers to broker content rights deals. Actual broadcasting should surely be up to existing movie streaming services such as Lovefilm or Acetrax, the latter of which streams 2D movies on Viera Connect (as does Eurosport for sports news, a broadcaster that now has a 3D channel on Virgin Media).
Lucas agrees: "If Acetrax had the streaming rights for streaming in 3D, then we would host it. It's not something that we would go out to secure. We would be reliant on third party suppliers."
There are, however, a few technical problems that put the brakes on the 3D streaming future.
Although at least a third of the UK's 200,000 3D TV owners are signed-up to Sky, the UK's newest 3D host, Virgin Media, could be well poised as it also runs a super-fast fibre optic broadband network.
Bandwidth is a major factor in TV manufacturer's indecision over 3D streaming. "A 3D side-by-side format broadcast takes the same space as a regular 2D HD channel," explains Lucas, "so if that's the case for 3D streaming then the TV would cope with it perfectly well."
"Frame sequential 3D - a Full HD image to each eye - will be possible in the future when bandwidth speeds are much greater, but today it would be difficult to make sure consumers get a good service that's not interrupted."
Lucas points to the BBC iPlayer's 'higher def' service as an example; it's better than SD, but stops short of being HD quality because of bandwidth restrictions.
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Offering a stable stream and brokering rights deals is the bread and butter of movie streaming companies like Acetrax and Lovefilm, but is the UK's digital infrastructure up to it?
"We would need a lot of bandwidth for 3D video on demand," says Leslie Golding, Chief Marketing Officer at Acetrax, "but we would probably do some kind of bandwidth detection, with a 'You can buy this 3D film, but beware' message."
Golding also thinks adaptive streaming would be crucial for 3D, so if the bandwidth suddenly reduces, the movie could go 'less 3D' or more grayscale for a few seconds or minutes rather than the movie buffer and stutter.
Content and quality
But bandwidth, says Golding, is only one part of the jigsaw. "The numbers of 3D TV owners are lower than many expected a year ago," he says, "and while there is some 3D content available from National Geographic and the History Channel, popular 3D movies are much harder to get. Someday there will be a button up there on Acetrax for a 3D version, but at the moment the content owners want to keep hold of it for a 3D Blu-ray disc."
"I think 3D streaming is additional to 3D discs," Andy Griffiths, Vice President of consumer electronics at Samsung, told TechRadar. "It's about broadening the access to content, and personalising it. There's space for disc usage and the increasing amount of high definition content that's feeding that on to Blu-ray. Then there's all the different access points in smart TV and new Blu-ray functionality that's beginning this year."
Panasonic takes a different tack: it's not about access, but quality - and the latter would certainly suffer if 3D was streamed to TVs.
"Panasonic very much supports the Full HD frame sequential system, and that can only be delivered via Blu-ray," says Lucas.
"When Panasonic initially proposed the system for delivery for 3D movies we wanted to build a TV that would give you Full HD to each eye, but the broadcast side of things means they can't broadcast Full HD to each eye, so half resolution is the only way. You're not enjoying the ultimate picture quality, but that's always been the case with broadcast vs hard media."
For Golding, it's less a problem of bandwidth and picture quality, and more to do with content ownership. "It's not the tech, it's that the rights of the likes of Avatar in 3D are being so carefully guarded, restricted and controlled by the content owners. If they were to make a strategic change we'd see 3D streaming happen very quickly."
The first European country to benefit would probably be France, which has faster bandwidth, thinks Golding, but for the moment 3D streaming just isn't economically viable.
"We have to give minimum guarantees to the studios - and the truth is that there are simply not enough 3D TVs in the marketplace yet."
Lovefilm (which recently expanded its streaming service) also confirmed to us that it had no 3D streaming plans on the horizon, but a 3D video on demand future seems inevitable as broadband speeds increase and 3D TVs slowly spread in to living rooms.
In the meantime, most people would be happy with a proper hi-def 2D streaming service.