Under the Sizzle of 3DTV

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No shortage of questions on the matter of three-dimensional television, or “3D-TV,” the big sizzler at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.

Here's a roundup of the questions in last week's mail: If cable providers wanted to go 3D, are there bandwidth implications? What about set-tops?

Content owners wanted to know about production and cost implications for making 3D shows.

The consumer-facing questions: Is there such a thing as a “3D-ready” TV? Why are there so many different types of glasses? Where do people get them, if this is happening in homes as well as movie theaters?

Let's start at the beginning. The third dimension in 3D-TV is depth. It joins the other two dimensions: Height and width (of the screen). By adding depth to the viewing experience, some objects seem closer to you. Like the football, coming right at you, or the pointing finger that seems to be aimed right at your nostril. (Ew.)

Today's 3D-TV environment is a bubbling brew of different techniques, ideas, and excitements. There are more questions than answers at this point, but let's look first at set-tops and bandwidth.

The prerequisite for any kind of 3D content — for cinema screens or TVs — is digital. If this strikes you as a “duh!,” consider: As of last spring, only about 5,000 of 38,000 movie screens in the U.S. had “gone digital,” and of those, about 1,000 could do 3D. (And the economics work: People are willing to plunk down an extra $5 to see, say, Hannah Montana in three dimensions.)

On set-tops: So far, it's sounding like the minimum resolution required to do 3D is 1080p, at 60 frames per second. Most of what you see on HD now, with the possible exception of some EchoStar-delivered content, is 1080i.

Consider: An uncompressed 1080i stream chews up 1.5 Gigabits per second. The same uncompressed content in 1080p requires about 3 Gbps, engineers say.

This means one thing for sure: Get out the advanced compression, variously known as MPEG-4 and H.264. While operators are beginning to install set-tops with dual MPEG2/4 decode chips, it's a trickle, not a gusher. This means there's an installed-base issue. [Before despairing, see “people are willing to pay a premium.”]

Original content produced in 3D requires two cameras — one for each eye, essentially. And, as might be expected from something this new, it isn't cheap. Estimates at a Digital Cinema conference hosted by SMPTE last spring put complex 3D production at $75,000 per minute. Adding 3D to existing HDTV material rang in at around $55,000 per minute.

Subtitling is also an issue. When the football is coming right at you, where do your eyes best interpret the words and numbers on the scoreboard? The incorrect placement of text into a variable-depth of field environment can be … well, nausea-inducing.

About 3D-TV-ready HDTVs: According to the demo-people at Dolby, something like 1.5 million HDTVs have already been sold in the U.S. that are “3D-TV-ready.”

In the home, there's the glasses. Three types, now, by my count. There's the original paper kind, circa 1953, with the red/blue lenses. There's a polarized version. And, there's the kind with shutters in each lens that flutter open and shut, super-fast, one eye to the next, synced to pulses transmitted from inside or near the HDTV.

“Cross-talk” could also be an issue. In 3D terms, cross-talk is what happens when left-eye images leak into right-eye images and visa versa. (This can also induce a feeling of dizziness.)

The 3D TVs at this year's CES were a bit more “gee whiz” than truly a mechanism to advance or enhance a story. Most people say reality for 3D is in the five-year timeframe. Between now and then, watch for 3D Webcams, 3D without glasses, and who knows, maybe even a resurgence of holographic TV.

So: Other than challenges with production, delivery, viewing, technology, standards and business models, 3D is on its way.

And if nothing else, it sure gives new meaning to feeling a little flat.

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