A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam. The convention hosts 1,300 exhibitors over 13 huge rooms at the RAI centre in the city and is a showcase for all the latest video production technology. While I was there I spoke to some of our suppliers and had a look at some really innovative lighting and camera options, but it was the developments in televisions that really grabbed my attention.

Avatar, released in 2009 was created and displayed in 3D and became the highest grossing movie of all time generating more than $2.7 Billion worldwide. This incredible success has encouraged the major television manufacturers to bring 3D technology out of the cinema and into our living rooms and they are backing 3D TV to be the next big innovation in the consumer market. Manufacturers such as Sony, Samsung and Panasonic were all showcasing their new 3D compatible sets in Amsterdam. As with all televisions the cost is very dependent on size and specification, but I was told that very soon you will be able to purchase a full HD 40inch 3D enabled TV on the high street for around £800.

Although an innovation in terms making it available to the masses, 3D technology itself is nothing new. The first stereoscopic (3D) movie ever made was  L’arrivée du train” which was filmed in 1903, although it was not really until the 1980’s that the format started to achieve any commercial success. Films such as “Jaws3D” and “Friday the 13th – Part 3” were displayed in 3D, although the momentum faltered when filmmakers struggled to come to terms with the huge costs involved in production and viewers were reluctant to wear cardboard glasses to view the films.

The production process and output quality has improved significantly since then and viewers are more receptive to alternative visual mediums due to the success of I-Max theatres and recent 3D films, but those barriers still remain. Filming in 3D is still very expensive compared to shooting in HD as producers need to make large investments in 3D cameras and make more considerations regarding depth of shots, camera locations, and the differences in the editing process, all of which costs significant amounts of money. 

In terms of wearing glasses to enjoy the benefits of 3D, the success of Avatar shows people are willing to pay a premium to enjoy 3D (and wear and pay for the glasses) at the cinema as it is part of what makes the cinema a different experience to watching films at home. But asking people to wear glasses to enjoy television programmes they watch in their front room creates a different set of challenges. Phillip Bourchier O’Ferrall, the Senior Vice President of digital media at MTV recently said “to make 3D viewing a pleasure for the consumer – and that means without glasses – we are still quite a way off from making 3D work for television”. I am sure manufactures are racing to advance the technology to enable this innovation, but currently it is still a little way off. A big part of whether 3D is a success long term depends if consumers will accept wearing glasses to enjoy the content, or how quickly an alternative can be created.

Aside from wearing glasses in your living room, there is also a hardware consideration for consumers. Millions of people across the world have recently upgraded to HD sets (myself included) and it will take some time for people to upgrade to 3D technology having recently made that investment. Dr Abe Peled, CEO of NDS recently said of 3D TV that “Pay-TV operators will embrace it and push it to their subscribers, but it will be a slow diffusion because people have to buy 3D enabled televisions and many have only just brought HD sets.”

Taking those potential limitations to the success of 3D into consideration, I think the best way to ensure the long term success of the format is to focus on key areas initially. In Amsterdam almost every 3D demo featured football coverage and when you see it the results are stunning. The depth and detail is incredible and I think it is a real step up in quality when compared to conventional HD footage. Earlier this month Sky rolled out its first 3D sports offering by showing the Ryder Cup in 3D and they have supported this launch with a significant marketing campaign. I believe at the early stage of adoption, live sport should be the main focus of 3D broadcasters due to its global popularity and the revenue generated from the premium subscription fees people are willing to pay to watch it. This heightened revenue stream provides sports broadcasters such as Sky with the resources to invest in the development of their 3D offering over time to help ultimately create a process that can be used across the entire TV production industry. 

Although 3D sport will kick start the launch and help keep 3D current and in the minds of the consumer, more widespread acceptance of the medium across all TV genres will be needed to ensure sustainable success. As Sky produce a relatively small amount of the content they broadcast (aside from live sport) it will fall upon the major content creators such as the BBC and US based networks such as HBO and CBS to support this new medium with viewable content. Currently due to the cost of production and the need for technical innovation this seems unlikely at this time. John Honeycutt, Executive Vice President of Discovery Communications said recently that 3D production technology need advancements before it can be accepted throughout the industry. “We need single-body duel lens portable cameras. We can’t be tied to using two large units on a rig as we are at the moment. Portability is essential to create the content we want”. From a UK perspective, Emma Scott, the Managing Director of Freesat HD recently stated that “The UK runs behind some other markets when it comes to 3D content and until the major broadcasters in the UK fully embrace it there will be barriers to adoption in the TV market”. Whether or not the cost of production relative to the revenues generated from this content makes it worthwhile for organisations to produce a high level of original 3D content will become more apparent in the coming years, but without their support 3D will not become a widespread commercial success

My cynical side thinks that the money generated from the HD upgrade produced huge revenues for manufactures as people chose to upgrade their existing sets to take advantage of HD TV and gaming. Although television sales have continued to rise in this country, it is only natural for producers to seek and promote the next big innovation to kick on sales in high end televisions now HD is more mainstream and the costs of these sets has flattened out. Re launching 3D technology as a new innovation could have the effect of causing excitement in the industry and re-stimulating sales.

My more optimistic side thinks that 3D could be real revolution in television and take the viewing experience to another dimension. Sony recently sold out of their new 3D Bravia sets with “demand far outstripping expectations” so it is clear consumer interest is strong. If you have not had a chance to try it for yourself, you should! Sky are showing sporting events in pubs up and down the country and you can find a venue near you by visiting their website .I am sure before Christmas many high street stores will have demos in their shops and it’s definitely worth seeing for yourself.

Having read this post back, it looks like I have a negative view towards 3D, but this isn’t the case. 3D, unlike HD, is not a brand new innovation that has not been seen before. 3D technology has been around for decades now and arguably has already failed to win over consumers on a number of occasions in the past. There are a huge amount of barriers and hurdles to overcome before we can see if it is a success this time around. I think the quality and potential of 3D is huge, but whether it succeeds or not, only time will tell.

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Simon Malone