Television is changing. Not so long ago, high-definition, three-dimensional images were confined to the realms of science fiction, but they could be coming into British living rooms this summer – and the unlikely first stars of the next televisiual revolution might well be John Terry and Wayne Rooney.
This week has already seen a series of exciting technology launches, from Google's Nexus One mobile phone to Microsoft's tablet computer, but much of the talk at this week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas focused on 3D television. "No one can escape the buzz and excitement around 3D," said Stephen Gater, head of marketing home entertainment for LG Electronics in the UK. "We're witnessing the start of dramatic change in how we view TV – the dawn of a new dimension."
TV manufacturers, production companies and computer game developers have all been showing off next-generation kit in Las Vegas, but it was a broadcaster that was first off the block. The US sports network ESPN announced it would screen live football in 3D from the World Cup in South Africa, where Rooney and his England team-mates hope to lift the Jules Rimet trophy for the first time since 1966. It plans to carry 85 live sporting events in 3D this year, and is putting separate production trucks, commentators and technical crews in place to broadcast alongside its more traditional D format. The ESPN president George Bodenheimer said: "We know sports fans drive new technology."
Tom Morrod, a senior analyst and head of TV technology at Screen Digest magazine, explained: "There are a couple of reasons why 3D television is on the agenda now. The technology is finally in place, and at a price, where it can be piped into the home."
He believes a crucial factor is the increase in programmes made for 3D, saying: "Until a few years ago there was a drought, but now specific 3D content is in production."
The Discovery Channel also said this week that it was joining IMAX and Sony to launch a 3D television network in the US next year.
Another factor is that viewers are now familiar with the 3D medium, thanks to big-budget movies. "The public is watching mainstream movies like Avatar, and it is being talked about by companies that they understand," Mr Morrod said. Beyond child-friendly 3D cartoons, including recent hits Monsters vs. Aliens and Up, more action movies are on the way. Steven Spielberg is filming Tintin in 3D, while this year will see the release of Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland.
Industry experts believe CES has shown that 2010 is the year that 3D hardware will match expectations. Laurent Abadie, head of Panasonic in Europe, said: "The 3D technology has needed a long delivery time, but this is the launching year."
He expects to bring 3D TVs and Blu-ray players to Europe this spring. Hollywood studios are backing 3D on Blu-ray because the format allows films to be viewed at a much higher definition than it is possible to broadcast. Mr Abadie said games would also drive the take-up of 3D TV. Howard Stringer, chief executive of Sony, said this week that PlayStation 3 consoles would be upgraded to work in 3D.
Television manufacturers have all been developing 3D devices, which have to be more powerful than any of the HD-ready sets that have come before. "A 3D TV needs to display two high-definition images at the same time and the hardware needs to be upgraded to handle that," Mr Abedie explained, who was keen to dispel fears that the TV sets would be prohibitively expensive. While no company has yet announced pricing for the new technology, he said they would be "a few hundred pounds premium to HD televisions". The industry has looked to shrug off doubts that families will pay for a new TV, especially as many have recently invested in an HD set. Panasonic expects up to 15 per cent of its sales this year to be of 3D televisions, while the Consumer Electronics Association estimates that 4.3 million 3D TVs will be sold in 2010, rising to 25 per cent of all TVs in 2014. A spokesman for Sony said: "When people see the picture quality of the new sets it will become part of the replacement cycle."
The standard has advanced from the dual coloured glasses, which one analyst described as "little more than a gimmick" and there are two technologies underpinning the new range of TVs. Still, "passive polarised" and "active shuttering" both require viewers to wear special glasses. TVs that do not require eyeware are in development but so far these sets only provide a 3D image at a "sweet spot" in the middle of the picture. More than 1.6 million Sky customers in the UK already have set-top boxes fitted with the technology to play 3D programmes, and they are poised to benefit as the broadcaster famous for its sporting schedules pushes heavily into the market. When Sky launches its 3D service later this year, subscribers with a Sky+HD box will be able to receive 3D content as soon as they upgrade to a 3D set.
Paul Godden, an analyst at RBS, said: "New 3D is impressive when it is done well, but terrible when it is done badly. If Sky can get the execution right, then 3D could be a game-changer in the way that Sky + and HD were." Pubs will be first with Sky's technology, screening selective 3D sporting events this year and Mr Godden believes Premiership League football will drive sales.
As viewers fork out significant sums for new 3D TVs, receivers and glasses, production companies will also have to invest heavily in filming new 3D content. These costs have come down after Sony launched its first single-lens 3D camera last year, which is cheaper than a two-lens system. Gerry O'Sullivan, Sky's director of strategic product development, said: "Sky has already been testing the technology at football matches. We needed new kit and we have to get the crews used to a different way of working."
It will also bring a different style of filming sport, Mr O'Sullivan added: "With D there are up to 20 cameras at a match and the art is about fast cutting. A 3D camera gives you a better feel for the event, and you don't need all the different angles and quick cuts. The viewers' eye will be doing a lot of the work."
Tricks of the trade: How 3D systems work
Three-dimensional broadcasts have come a long way since Man In The Dark, the first studio movie to use stereoscopic 3D technology, in 1953. After a slew of releases, the style was abandoned and the next wave used "anaglyph" technology; splitting an image's red and blue channels and overlaying them. When viewed through glasses with red and blue lenses, the image appeared in three dimensions. Despite a recent 3D season on Channel 4 and US spy show Chuck using the format, analysts believe the industry has pretty much abandoned it.
Today, there are two formats being developed. Polarised 3D involves overlaying two images on the same screen through polarised filters. When the viewer watches the image through his own low-cost polarised glasses, it separates the image for each eye and creating the illusion of three dimensions. The other new 3D format is called active shuttering. The glasses darken over each eye alternately at incredibly quick intervals lining up the images on the screen to produce 3D images.
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