Is 3D television just a great big swizz?

14th Dec 2009 | 10:46

Is 3D television just a great big swizz?

TechRadar uncovers the substance behind the 3D TV hype

Is 3D TV just a massive swizz?

3D cinema technology has won over our hearts and minds in 2009.

Disney Pixar's life-affirming Up warmed our cockles and the Neil Gaiman-scripted Coraline scared our children.

And while there has also been a considerable amount of 3D-dross pumped out of Tinseltown in the last year, the tech is unarguably superb and here to stay.

So what of 3D in the home? As TV manufacturers gear up for the hype-machine that is CES 2010 is there a danger that we are being sold a version of 3D gaming or Blu-ray that is a little bit too far removed from reality? The likes of Sky and Sony would have us believe that 2010 is set to be the year that 3D in the home reaches a tipping point and goes mass market.

But is this all a great big swizz? Is it the latest attempts of a home entertainment industry desperate to sell us the Next Big Thing? While we all love and desire cool new tech, is the time right for you to start thinking about investing in a 3D-capable television in 2010?

Risky business with Sky 3D

"Generally speaking I think that 3D will be a 'minority sport' for some time to come, at least within the television environment," says Julian Clover, Editorial Director and European Digital Analyst at Broadband TV News.

"We must remember that HD still has a relatively small audience, particularly outside the UK. It makes sense that Sky should start with a PPV channel and I expect others will do the same," adds Clover.

Others in the industry think that there is a danger that Sky is pushing for 3D TV too much, too soon.

"Sky waited until HD TVs were sufficiently widespread in the market before launching Sky HD but I think it's taking a risk by offering 3D TV so soon," thinks Grant Rennell, Deputy Editor of What Satellite and Digital TV magazine.

"It depends how many channels and/or programmes are on offer at launch. Provide enough sports and movies in 3D and you may just persuade subscribers it's time to upgrade their set accordingly. It helps that you won't need a new Sky+ to watch it.

"I don't think Sky alone can ensure a speedy uptake of 3D TVs this side of 2011, however. 3D gaming could be a bigger 'driver' especially if Sony and Microsoft get on board. Again, it's a bonus that new boxes will probably not be required," he adds.

3D cinema tech experts also remain firmly on the fence when it comes to the 3D experience in the home.

"Where 3D really shines is in immersive media," argues Steen Iversen, CEO of Sirius 3D. "A 3D image filling out a giant domed planetarium screen, for example, is a completely unique experience, very different from 3D on the TV and even today's 3D cinema."

Plus, Iverson thinks that the idea of putting on special 3D glasses goes hand in hand with "preparing for a special experience, like an attraction ride, an event… TV is watched while cooking, reading, doing homework or other activities. Until we have good glasses free, 3D is not going to be the way we watch TV."

Critically-acclaimed 3D film producer Phil Streather, the brain behind the original IMAX Bugs 3D and producer of the London Eye's recently launched 4D cinema experience is a little more excited about the possibilities for 3D in the home.

4D

"I am working closely with BSkyB on their 3D TV tests and to have a UK broadcaster at the centre of the global effort to roll out 3D HDTV is very gratifying," Streather told TechRadar. "There seems to be a momentum now that adds up to more than hype; certainly in terms of how seriously big brands are taking the potential of 3D TV.

"Sony, LG and Panasonic are all investing millions in developing 3D technologies for the home. The missing part of the equation, of course, is content. In gaming this is easy, as to turn a game into stereo 3D is relatively simple whereas to turn Premier League soccer from 2D to 3D needs a fundamental revision of the whole production pipeline. But, where there is a will there is a way and the large corporations are certainly demonstrating their will!"

Let's also remember that Sky isn't the only broadcaster looking at offering 3D channels to its customers.

A Virgin Media rep recently told us that it was "always looking at new technology to see if it is something we would like to offer as a service to our customers" and, as such is "currently investigating 3D TV and have been showcasing 3D TV content at our Oxford Street store so visitors can get a taste of some of the 3D content that is being produced and experience this technology for themselves."

Film-maker phil streather on a recent shoot for the london eye 4d film

GOING UP: Film maker Phil Streather on a recent shoot for the London Eye 4D film

Back to the major TV manufacturers - according to Fabrice Estornel, Panasonic's Product Manager for Plasma TV, his company is also "committed to making a cinema-like 3D experience a reality for the home," just like Sky, Sony, LG and the rest.

"Panasonic's involvement in 3D technology throughout the value chain puts the company in a unique position to lead the space," Estornel told TechRadar. "Panasonic plans to launch 3D-capable televisions and Blu-ray Disc players in 2010 and thinks that movies will be the biggest market driver for 3D.

"The studios are showing a strong commitment through the development of more and more advanced and exciting content for theater viewing. All future Disney and Dreamworks' titles will be available in 3D, and 2009 alone will see a total of 17 3D titles released [and] 3D home cinema will then allow consumers to take this experience home. We also believe that highly entertaining 3D content will be developed for gaming, travel documentaries, concerts, sports and more," says the Panasonic marketing man.

3D TV in the home: the sticking points

Not all home cinema enthusiasts are entirely sold on or enthused by the idea of 3D in the lounge, with many citing reasons more to do with the social element of TV-viewing as opposed to any new forms of technical wizardry on offer.

"Although I'm not against 3D in the home per se, and am actually a fan of big screen, polarised 3D in the cinema, its adoption in a home setting will be severely hampered for a couple of reasons," argues Rik Henderson, Deputy Editor on Home Cinema Choice magazine. "Firstly, people are unlikely, on a regular basis, to watch a movie or television together with oversized, gimmicky specs on.

"They might do so on occasion, as a social activity (in much the same way that the Nintendo Wii is used as the focal point for many families), but there is far too much faff involved in the entire family donning glasses, ensuring they are sat in the optimum viewing position, and partaking in the activity for a considerable amount of time. To suggest that they'll do this more than once a week is ambitious at best.

3D tv gang

"The second, and most important, reason is that the rapid rise in popularity of HDTVs has seen a vast amount of households in the UK invest in an expensive flatscreen TV in the last two or three years.

"Although the average life-expectancy of a TV today is no longer that of the last generation (when many sets would only be replaced after 10-15 years of service), it is unfeasible to expect the same families to re-invest again so soon after. And then replace their Blu-ray deck, too?"

Henderson also adds that there are other reasons for his reticence on 3D TV that are "medical and otherwise," (many still complain of headaches after extended hours of viewing) "but these two are fundamental sticking blocks for a new technology to overcome to make a splash in the market and with content suppliers not known for their patience (HD DVD anyone?), how long will it be before their funds and support are moved into other areas of entertainment expansion?"

Another convincing argument against mass uptake of 3D in the home is that fact that there are massive 'dimensionalisation' difficulties in making non-native content into 3D.

"Despite any claims it is very difficult to dimensionalise content properly (in the range of $10,000-100,000 per minute of real 2D footage) and the overall experience is much worse than native 3D," notes Tom Morrod, Senior Analyst and Head of TV Technology at Screen Digest.

"This was importantly not such an issue with HD so a vast library of SD content could be upconverted and it could apply to any and all content types so there was immediately a vast array of legacy content available.

"The only legacy content that can be dimensionalised is animated CG movies where the scripts can just be rendered from a second viewpoint and edited together. But no one can re-do old movies with a second camera and the technology for 'creating' the illusion of a 3rd dimension is difficult."

The CES 2010 3D hype-machine

Nvidia is pre-empting this year's CES 3D excitement by touting its latest 3D Blu-ray movie 'solution' to European press this month - a PC equipped with its own 3D Vision active-shutter glasses and new 1080p, 3D LCD displays from Acer "to showcase how consumers will experience this new 3D Blu-ray content once it is commercially available."

"2010 is poised to be the year where consumers can enjoy stunning 3D experiences across all entertainment mediums, including gaming, photographs, web browsing, and of course, movie," claims Nvidia's latest 3D release, adding how the company is "pleased to announce that the amazing 3D experience that has proven so popular in movie theaters is about to come home."

Yet while we are big fans of Nvidia's 3D Vision glasses for gaming, we remain to be sold on the idea of using your laptop or PC as your primary screen to watch movies on. We have that nice big new HDTV for that very purpose, don't you know! Plus, outside of that hardcore niche of PC gaming geeks (a group to which, we should note, we count ourselves proud to be members) proper stereoscopic 3D is still very much in it's infancy in the home.

"We have yet to see any distribution standards for stereoscopic 3D (polarised or active glasses) so there isn't actually any content to be seen yet," says Tom Morrod.

Screen digest forecast

SCREEN SALES: Screen Digest's forecasted growth of worldwide 3D-capable screen sales 2008 - 2013

Standards are expected next year - starting with Sky's in-house standard and including an announcement for Blu-ray Disc (from BDA) and SMPTE, "probably the two most important standards for capture, edit and distribution," notes Morrod. The key problem here being that until these standards are set there is "no way of systematically sending content to the home, either on BD, VoD or broadcast."

Which is where games consoles look set to trump TV set-top offerings and 3D Blu-ray movies in the race to offer 3D fun in your lounge. Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 are 3D capable with firmware upgrades and they are also, as the Screed Digest analyst puts it, "independent ecosystems and games rendering in 3D is quite a simple technology too."

3D console gaming growth spurt

The latest predictions from analysts would have us believe that there will be no less than 40 million 3D-capable screens worldwide by 2014. A phenomenal rate of growth over the next four years, should the prediction turn out to be anywhere near correct.

"We have just published a 330-page report on 3D gaming and TVs," says display industry analyst Chris Chinnock, CEO of Insight Media.

"So we have spent a number of years looking at 3D and this is our latest report with the focus on gaming and the forecasts for 3D-capable platforms – laptops, monitors, TVs and projectors – offering three different forecast 'scenarios' – expected, optimistic and conservative."

Insight graph

GOING 3D: Insight Media's 'expected' predictions for worldwide 3D-capable screen sales 2008 - 2014

Chinnock and his team of analysts at Insight have been careful to make their forecasting methodologies as transparent as they possibly could.

"There are so many factors at play here that any of these scenarios could occur," Chinnock told TechRadar. "At the 10,000-foot level, I think 2010 is kind of the introduction year for 3D gaming and other content. Many more of the factors in the ecosystem start to align in 2011. And in 2012 almost all the pieces are in place to start to make 3D more of a mainstream phenomenon."

Sony and Sky, of course, want to make 2010 a much more 'mainstream adoption' year. "And they might have some success," the analyst concedes, "Sky is in a unique position because of their ability to create content and control the distribution of the content via its satellites and set-top boxes - so they are in a very good position to create a more mainstream capability for consumers.

"If you look at all the content that is out there in 3D today, gaming has by far the largest amount – and almost all of this is PC-based at this point, which is why we have focused in our gaming report on laptops and monitor-based experiences. But you are also starting to see the switchover to the availability of console-based 3D games now. [Ubisoft's] Avatar is the most important 3D game release to date."

One person who wholeheartedly agrees that gaming will drive the uptake of 3D TV in the lounge is Blitz Games Studios CEO, Andrew Oliver, perhaps the most vocal advocate of 3D in the home in Britain, having recently launched the first stereoscopic 3D console game, Invincible Tiger: The Legend of Han Tao for Xbox 360 and PS3. Oliver explained his passion for 3D entertainment tech in this guest post for TechRadar earlier in the year.

Hantao1

"It's no surprise to me that there will be a massive push on 3D this year at CES. CE companies can't deny the popularity and quality of the new 3D movies coming out of Hollywood. New TVs can produce exceptional quality 3D visuals with little extra technology and we've also proved that video games are possible and will look better in 3D. Everyone in the business knows 3D has finally come of age.

"I'm not expecting people who have bought a new flat panel TV to go out and buy a new, 3D enabled one. But I do expect all TV manufacturers to be offering optional 3D into most TVs in the next couple of years.

"People are always upgrading and next year they will have the choice to go for a TV that supports 3D or not. With Hollywood clearly making all the blockbusters in 3D and video games going into 3D, they have the option to pay a little extra for the extra level of immersion.

Hantao2

The problem here and now, of course, is that only a miniscule proportion of the console-gaming public are likely to own a TV to run Blitz's fantastic game on for the foreseeable near future.

Over-hyped and over here

To return to our original question, though, is there a danger of manufacturers over-hyping 3D TV at CES 2010?

"Well it's going to get hyped. For sure," says Chris Chinnock. "We know that there are going to be a number of significant 3D TV announcements made at CES and a lot of new 3D TVs unveiled. We are also going to see announcements relating to many of the infrastructure aspects, content-creation aspects, trial services, demos and so on. All the pieces are starting to come into place for people to start services and start the roll-out.

"Is that over-hyping? I don't know. Maybe not."

Meanwhile, Screen Digest's Tom Morrod is still adamant that 3D "is not going to be mainstream for several years," though he also helpfully adds that "a 3D TV bought next year is very unlikely to prove unusable in a few years time," because the 'format war' stuff is going to happen in distribution rather than in the displays.

For most, 3D will simply be something they discover on their new TV when they next upgrade it in 2015 or later. "Considering the uptake cycle for HD has been around five to six years to reach 30% penetration of total active TV sets and around 50% of households have at least one HD set we can probably project that it will be around 2016-2017 before we start reaching those kind of levels for 3D and probably looking at close to 100% of the households having at least one 3D TV by 2020 (all data for major established markets).

"Most people won't have to go looking for 3D, it will come to them."

Blitz Games boss Andrew Oliver adds that "this new 'hype' is no different to the early days of HD functionality in new TVs – for a lot of people it won't be of interest in the early stages but I'm confident that what is picked up now by the early adopters of technology will become standard in a couple of years for the broader market. This is a pattern that we've seen time and again and there's nothing to suggest it will be different this time."

So what have we learned? 3D TVs are going to be hyped at CES and throughout 2010. A lot. Gaming is going to drive quality 3D content on the TV. And Sky's 3D offering, while niche, should be of interest to a few of us later in the year. Providing it doesn't give you headaches.

And, if you are a hardcore gamer with a lot of money burning a hole in your pocket, you may as well shell out for a decent 3D TV asap, because it should suit your needs for the next five or so years.

By which point, we will no doubt start talking about next-gen SmellOvision TVs and 4D virtual spaces at CES 2015…

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Liked this? Then check out The complete guide to 3D TV

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