3D: ready for transmission, now all we need is the content...
Cliff Richard did it. So did John Noakes, and Reg Varney.
In the 60s and 70s, the skidpan at London Transport's Chiswick Works was a magnet for film and TV crews: we all saw buses pirouetting across our screens with varying degrees of elegance, apparently with stars at the wheel.
It was probably responsible for generations of juvenile bus-spotters, even if back in those reconstructed days it was something only boys did. When Noakes' Blue Peter co-presenter Lesley Judd went on the buses for the kids' TV favourite, she learned to be a conductress. But of course…
Anyway... where the iconic bus works once stood in West London is now a hi-tech business development, Chiswick Park. And it's here that Technicolor – yes, the same 'brought to you in glorious Technicolor' – is responsible for the transmission of the entire ITV network.
And BBC Worldwide, that Clarkson-fuelled respite for those stranded in hotels where all the TV is in some impenetrable local language. And Disney's TV channels, and more...
Content is taken in and routed out to the various transmitters around the country, not to mention the other broadcast platforms such as cable and satellite, and it's here the programmes gain their titles, bumpers advertising forthcoming attractions, 'Please do not call – lines now closed' captions on repeats and so on.
In fact, Technicolor handles over 320 TV channels, providing broadcasting services in more than 50 languages and subtitling in 35+, to over 70m households worldwide.
Masses of screens on the huge 'mission control' displays monitor the feeds, and the transmitters and platforms to which programming is being fed, and slap-bang in the middle is the section for ITV1 HD, with some blank screens in that area ready for future outlets for the service.
A similar facility in Leeds handles content for the northern half of the UK during the day, and the two provide mutual back-up for each other: either can take over the running of the entire network to ensure continuity of delivery.
It's here at Technicolor that preparations have been made for 3D TV over the established broadcast infrastructure: a 3D broadcast suite is up and running in Chiswick, able to handle both live and prerecorded content.
It's now down to the TV stations to come up with the content.
This week, on the day it announced its 3D broadcast capacity, the company held an open day to talk 3D to the press, and give its view of how broadcast TV can fill what it sees as a content gap: people will soon be able to buy 3D TVs, but there'll be precious little to view on them. As the only consumer magazine on the guest-list, we were keen to have an independent view of the way 3D TV is shaping up.
And it's not quite the way you might think. At the moment, there's just one full-length Blu-ray 3D movie title in existence, the company says, and it's Monsters vs Aliens. Technicolor should know: as well as its broadcast services, it's also a leading DVD and Blu-ray authoring and replication house, being involved in over 2000 titles last year and with the capacity to manufacture 1.8bn discs annually and ship them to almost 100,000 destinations worldwide.
Its 3D Blu-ray authoring systems and manufacturing have allowed it to produce and distribute the 3D Blu-rays of Monsters vs Aliens to be bundled with Samsung players and TVs. It suggests we should all get used to seeing clips from that movie in demonstrations, because it's all there's going to be for a while.
Judging from presentations given by the company, and Bill Foster, Senior Technology Consultant at Futuresource Consulting, we'll have to wait a good while before there's a huge library of 3D Blu-ray titles available.
Foster reckons that by the end of 2011, there may only be 50 3D Blu-ray titles in the market, putting the onus on broadcast chains to fill that content gap.
'Several thousand' 3D pub TVs
Commenting on the conflicting releases about the Sky/LG tie-up, Foster said that there will be 'several thousand' pubs and clubs equipped with 3D TV using the Sky service, while Technicolor's Chief Marketing Officer, Ahmad Ouri, suggested that 3D broadcasts of the forthcoming World Cup are more likely to be into cinemas and other similar venues, rather than being made available into the home.
Sony is providing the 3D coverage from South Africa, but Ouri reckons its unlikely any 3D-capable broadcaster will be prepared to pay to deliver the content on existing platforms, simply because there will be so few homes ready to receive it by this summer.
But as Technicolor's President of Digital Content Delivery, Chuck Parker, made clear in his opening remarks, there is an appetite for 3D broadcasts on conventional platforms, and several broadcasters across Europe are already planning services.
3D TV on existing broadcast platforms
Foster explains that the limitations of bandwidth means 3D TV broadcasts won't be to the full 1080p HD standard available on Blu-ray, but will use the lower resolution 'side by side' technology already being used by Sky for its test broadcasts, allowing 3D to be transmitted using existing HD TV carriers.
And he gave an interesting insight into the relative costs of the Multiview Video Coding/frame sequential/active shutter glasses 3D method being advocated by most of the big consumer electronics companies, and the simpler line alternate/'side by side' system.
The real hardware cost in the MVC system isn't in the TV – Foster says the incremental component cost is in the region of £15 – but in the active shutter glasses, currently being announced at anything up to £100 a pair. Both Foster and Ouri think the prices of these glasses will fall to around £25 within 2-3 years, but then so will the cost of the screens with polarised filtering used in the 'line alternate' system, as manufacturing in ramped up and streamlined.
The passive advantage?
Currently this polarised system can add $1000 to the cost of a TV, because until now displays have had to be shipped to a single company for the application of the polarising layer, then shipped back to the TV manufacturer. That's changing, and the two say that the big advantage of the polarised system is that the glasses required are very cheap.
The fact they only cost about 50p when bought in bulk, and can be retailed at £1, means not only that the polarised glasses are much more suitable for commercial applications, where many pairs tend not to be returned after showing, but also have advantages in the home, Technicolor says. It's cheap and easy to have spare pairs for visitors, and the kind of damage likely to occur when kids are using the glasses doesn't prove expensive.
'No format war'
The message is, however, clear: while there may be two kinds of TV available, and two kinds of 3D content, the fact that all 3D content will be displayable on all 3D TVs means there will be no format war. Instead the two will coexist.
And of course 3D Blu-ray titles will play on non 3D TVs, with only the 'left eye' stream being displayed, although Foster does sound a note of caution: it's possible for studios to disable this feature using a 'flag' on the disc, so the 3D disc must be played on a 3D player/TV combination.