Bringing 3D TV to a mass market will be a slow and painful process

If the launch of 3D TV is to be a success, broadcasters must address the lack of content and come to an agreement of standards

Are we all going to end up wearing glasses, whether our eyesight is failing or not? The movies have played host – on and off – to 3D for decades. But now 3D TV threatens to leap off the screens several years earlier than predicted.

Last week, director of Oscar-winning film Avatar James Cameron called 3D TV “the future” at the glitzy launch in New York of Samsung’s 3D television sets. The first 3D ads, unsurprisingly promoting 3D TVs, have appeared in association with Avatar.

This Saturday (20 March), French audiences will be able to go to cinemas to watch a live 3D broadcast of the France v England Six Nations rugby game from the Stade de France.

And next month Sky will launch its 3D TV service with a dedicated sports channel promised for next year, while ESPN plans to offer the World Cup in South Africa in 3D.

In the past year, 3D TV has moved from techie background noise with a futuristic tinge to the forefront of innovation.

The reasons are obvious and largely to do with the old temptress – money. All the electronic set manufacturers want something new and expensive to sell consumers as HD-ready sets move towards commodity pricing.

The pay-TV boys have drooled over the box office receipts of films such as Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. The great joy for the Hollywood money men is that not only do the audiences turn up in large numbers, you can also charge a healthy premium.

In the cinema, 3D is the wave of the future – if you listen to Jeffrey Katzenburg, whose DreamWorks Animation studio will make all its future movies in 3D.

As for Sky, it has an impressive history in turning technical innovation into mass-market products – everything from satellite television itself through digital and PVRs to high definition.

There is still no agreement on standards, never smart when introducing new products. This will get sorted out in the end as winners and losers emerge, but the process often happens in slow motion. In the meantime, the lack of both content and agreed standards can form a toxic cocktail.

The motive has usually been to drive the dreaded average revenue per user – persuading subscribers to pay more year after year. In this case, it’s more of a lock-in. Sky’s HD+ subscribers will get the new service for “free” provided they pay around  £1,300 for a 32-inch set or up to £5,000 for the 65-inch version.

You can argue, and Katzenburg certainly does, that the rise of 3D is inevitable. The world is lived and viewed in 3D, so why would anyone want to consume entertainment in 2D given a choice? It’s as big a change as the move from black and white to colour and it didn’t take consumers very long to grasp that one.

However, 3D’s transition from the triumph on the big screen to the living room may be neither seamless nor painless.

You’re just sitting down to watch your nice, impressive HD TV with at least another six or seven years of useful life in it and these geezers in the dark glasses are already trying to sweet-talk you into getting a replacement.

And with the exception of a few high-profile Hollywood hits there is not exactly a lot of content available yet, either entertainment or ads. With two synchronised cameras needed all the time, production costs will also be higher.

Sky at least is trying to prime the pump by offering to pay any difference between the cost of HD and 3D for new productions.

Just to add to the complexity of this game there is still no agreement on standards, never smart when introducing new products. There’s even the “with glasses or without” dilemma.

Standards always get sorted out in the end as winners and losers emerge. But the process often happens in slow motion, and in the meantime the lack of both content and agreed standards can form a toxic cocktail.

There is also a tricky business problem for Sky. The new 3D service will, at least at the outset, increase costs while being watched by a minority of a minority. It will only be available to Sky’s 2 million HD subscribers out of the near 10 million total. Sky must hope that 3D turns out to be the inducement that will attract more viewers into the HD+ fold.

But all of this is pretty academic stuff. The only issue of any importance is the pictures. Will people like them enough to say I want that, or will they sit around waiting to see how the rest of the world reacts?

It’s too early to say for sure, but the carefully chosen demonstration clips such as Usain Bolt rattling off the 100 metres in a world record 9.58 seconds, Swan Lake from the English National Ballet or Liverpool v Marseilles in the Champions League are certainly impressive.

Those who watched Manchester United put three goals past Arsenal in 3D in nine pubs across the UK and Ireland last month were mostly impressed. Some claimed it was like being at the game, though others thought it looked like a computer game. There is also the problem that if you view from the wrong angle things rapidly became blurry.

It may be perfectly obvious that 3D TV is the future, incontestable even, but for now this seems like the perfect occasion to wait and see. This viewer was as close to day one as possible on the launch of satellite TV, digital, PVRs and HD, but sorry guys. Not this time. Not yet. 

Raymond Snoddy

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