The standardization process for 3-D content to be transmitted to the home has begun, and though
it’s at least a year and a half down the road, cable operators need to be paying close attention
to the technologies that could soon swamp up their pipes . . . or their wallets.

The modest reviews and returns for the remake of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” notwithstanding, film studios and broadcasters across the globe are enthusiastic about three-dimensional (3-D) content. There’s a wave of 3-D coming, 3-D In The Homepeople want it in their homes, and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) and the consumer electronics industry are already working on making it happen. Pay TV providers obviously have a role to play.

The history of 3-D imaging, or stereoscopic imaging, dates back more than 150 years. Stereoscopy, invented around 1840, creates the illusion of depth in an image by presenting two similar images, differing only slightly in perspective, one to each eye. Many 3-D displays still use this method to deliver 3-D images to viewers.

The first 3-D movies hit America in the early 1900s, and since then hundreds of films and TV shows have been created in the format. According to Sensio, in the ‘50s, 3-D films such as “Hondo,” starring John Wayne, and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” were shot using state-of-the-art technology, but even so, 3-D lost its flare due to the poor viewing conditions in most theaters, and due to the complex equipment required to exhibit 3-D movies, such as silver screens, polarized glasses, double-synchronized projectors, special lenses, etc.

But with the introduction of the Imax 3-D format in the ‘80s, and with the emergence of new screening technology, the 3-D format saw a resurgence. Computer animation technology, digital cameras and 3-D home theaters have contributed to the democratization of stereoscopic production and screening. And as the technology has gotten progressively more advanced, the demand has only gotten stronger for more quality 3-D content.

Steve Oksala

So the concept of delivering 3-D content to the masses is no new concept, but what is new is that it now makes business sense, says Nicholas Routhier, president and CEO of Sensio, which develops and markets avant-garde stereoscopic technologies. Before, the technology was very limiting; distributing two different streams was a nightmare, and there was no meaningful way of doing it; and it was extremely costly, he said. But today, digital technology has improved, and consumers are excited about 3-D and are willing to pay more to see it.

3-D versions of movies, on average, rack up about one-and-a-half times the amount of box office sales as the 2-D versions, Routhier says. And the next step is that consumers want to see those same 3-D movies in the comfort of their own homes.

According to Steve Oksala, vice president of standards for the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE), executives from the cable, consumer electronics and film industries, as well as other related industries, are saying about 3-D to the home: “This looks like it could bring in business. Let’s get some standards.”

“Companies have come to us and said that there is a market for moving 3-D video to the home,” says SMPTE Engineering Vice President Wendy Aylsworth.

Wendy Aylsworth

So this summer, SMPTE established a task force to define the parameters of a stereoscopic 3-D mastering standard for content viewed in the home. Called the 3-D Home Display Formats Task Force, it aims to move the 3-D home entertainment industry forward by setting the stage for a standard that will enable 3-D feature films and other programming to be played on all fixed devices in the home, no matter the delivery channel, SMPTE says.

The inaugural meeting of the task force occurred on Aug. 19. It explored the standards that need to be set for 3-D content distributed via broadcast, cable, satellite, packaged media and the Internet to be played-out on televisions, computer screens and other tethered displays. After six months, the committee will produce a report that defines the issues and challenges, minimum standards, evaluation criteria and more, which the society says will serve as a working document for SMPTE 3-D standards efforts to follow.

“Digital technologies have not only paved the way for high-quality 3-D in the theaters, they have also opened the door to 3-D in the home,” Aylsworth says. “In order to take advantage of this new opportunity, we need to guarantee consumers that they will be able to view the 3-D content they purchase and provide them with 3-D home solutions for all pocketbooks.”

According to Aylsworth, in early 2009 there will be an effort within the Technology Committee of SMPTE to actually write a standard, or standards. The task force will determine how many standards there need to be; for example, subtitling methods, which are very difficult in 3-D, may be segregated out to house its own standard.

Typically a standard takes between a year and two years to get published, Aylsworth says, so the U.S. is looking at about 18 months until it will begin to see 3-D-to-the-home technologies in the market. “The manufacturers who care the most are in active participation,” Aylsworth says, “and once the [standard] document goes through the final ballot, details are down and vendors are confident that no technology items will change, vendors will go into production.”

Vendors that presented their respective technologies at the task force meeting included Sensio, Philips, Dynamic Digital Depth (DDD), TD Vision and Real D, all of which have 3-D distribution technologies that are working in some fashion today.

Currently, consideration is not being given to smaller formats and smaller devices that could receive 3-D content. The focus of the task force is mostly on distribution to large-screen TVs. “We don’t want to do anything to preclude it from going to mobile, but we had to put parameters on what we want to solve now, and we went with the HD world and how people are viewing HD.”

But eventually, Aylsworth says: “We want 3-D to reach everyone. We want to pick a method that can hit as many displays as possible.”

And that’s exactly what the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) is aiming for, as well. Much interest regarding 3-D-to-the-home standards has been expressed to the association, and on Oct. 22, the CEA has authorized a “discovery group” to investigate the need for 3-D standards.

According to Brian Markwalter, CEA’s vice president of technology and standards, the discovery group will look at how 3-D information could be passed by a common standard to displays, how the content will move around in the home, how the mixture of 2-D and 3-D content will hold up, and how the mixture of 3-D content and onscreen menus, as well as other features that consumers are used to having, will fare.

3-D to the home is not that far out for cable operators, SMPTE’s Aylsworth says, and operators should be aware of the task force’s activity and working through their related organizations – through SCTE – staying abreast of what’s going on. Since it’s just a task force, she says, operators can stay tuned and merely pay attention to what comes out of the task force, but they should be learning about the issues. “What does it mean for their bandwidth, their infrastructure?”

Phillip's 52-inch 3-D Display

According to the SCTE’s Oksala, it’s way too early to tell if 3-D content will require cable operators to upgrade their headends or networks, or whether it will be a plug-and-play solution. “If it’s done sensibly, it will simply be additional content transported over the cable network.”

“What concerns us,” Oksala says, “is if the standard results in different kinds of digital information being sent than cable already sends. When a standard is created, we want to make sure it doesn’t call for something that’s going to break our system. We can make changes in digital streams, but if something comes along that [cable operators] don’t expect, if we haven’t thought it through, it may process incorrectly.”

He says that the SCTE will make sure that the standard is consistent with SCTE 40; and if it’s not, SCTE 40 may have to be extended to account for something new.

Sensio’s Routhier says that with his company’s technology, cable operators would not need any additional technology, they would just need to use Sensio’s encoder. What cable operators do need to think about, though, is marketing, he says – where the service will be available, and for how much, etc. The real technical challenge, he says, is on the shoulders of TV manufacturers.

And bandwidth, of course, is always a concern, Oksala says. The issue will be important, especially since many broadcasters are doing HD, and eventually mobile and handheld, which doesn’t leave a lot of bits for 3-D. But as Aylsworth points out, there are many 3-D distribution techniques that do not require much additional bandwidth, such as Philip’s mode of distribution, dubbed 2-D plus depth. With this technique, a 2-D image is sent along with information about the depth of each object in that image, and at the other end, the display melds the two, allowing viewers to see two different images – one in the left eye and one in the right – without 3-D glasses.

The critical issue for cable operators, says DDD CEO Chris Yewdall, is deciding at what point there are enough 3-D-capable TVs in the market to warrant delivering 3-D content to subscribers. Yewdall expects 3-D games to emerge first, followed by 3-D movies on Blu-ray, which will inspire consumers to purchase 3-D-ready TVs. Then, he says, the cable industry can warrant the infrastructure changes needed – however minimal or severe – to start to address those customers with pay-per-view (PPV) and video-on-demand (VOD) services with 3-D content.

With the first generation of 3-D TVs, in order to enjoy the 3-D feature, a user must plug the TV into a PC. “It’s targeted toward gamers,” Yewdall says. The 3-D market will be most successful when it can deliver a 3-D experience that is comparable to what people are used to in 2-D, he says.

“3-D TV affects everyone in the TV industry, and that includes cable,” says Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) President Mark Richer. “It’s not going to be here tomorrow for the consumer, but it’s really on the radar now, for everybody, and I think it’s going to be very, very successful. It’s going to take a while, but so did HDTV.” Just like with HDTV and the switch to color, Richer continues, “Whether you watch 3-D in a theater, or some day in the home, it really is striking to a viewer. It’s one of those big changes. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for the cable and satellite industries.”