The future of TV: talking tech with Sky's 3D guru

Sky’s 3D guru Chris Johns predicts big things for no-glasses Auto-3D screens, and explains why Sky is backing LG’s passive 3D TVs in the meantime

Chris Johns, BSkyB's chief engineer responsible for 3D

If 3D had a face it would look like Chris Johns. As BSkyB’s chief engineer, Johns is the mastermind behind Sky 3D. He’s coddled Sky’s transmission technology, orchestrated its production guidelines and generally overseen the rollout of 3D for the broadcaster from day one.

We caught up with him at a technical briefing on 3D held by the influential Digital Television Group (DTG), the UK body which publishes and maintains the technical spec for our Freeview and Freeview HD platforms (also known as the D-Book), as well as other things broadcast related. He’s at the DTG to update channel barons and analysts alike about Sky’s progress with 3D – and he’s predictably upbeat about his new toy.

“Demand has exceeded our expectations,” he tells his audience. “We’ve come a long way fast. Three years ago, 3D TV didn't even exist. We expected to see 100,000 3D TV sales by the end of 2010, but the reality was closer to 140,000 [125,000 according to official figures from GfK] – way ahead of what we expected. More than three million Sky+HD homes now have the capability of receiving 3D at this point in time. And we’re committed to keeping it as a free offering for our top tier customers.”

More than three million homes can now receive 3D TV via Sky+ HD

He’s quick to add though that Sky is far from feeling complacent, saying that there’s plenty of work that needs to be done in terms of consumer education and 3D content creation.

“We’re now shooting between two and three live events in 3D each week – and we’re commissioning ever more diverse content: opera, ballet and rock concerts. David Attenborough’s Flying Monsters, the Christmas special, proved a roaring success for us. We’re hoping to follow it up with another episode later this year. We’re pushing forward to give people a real flavour of what 3D can offer.”

It’s no surprise that sport remains a key 3D driver for the broadcaster. “Were taking on major events, like the Ryder Cup golf from the US, together with a lot of finals, like Darts,” he says. “Darts is a strange one. I didn’t think it was going to work but it gave us a chance to use some of the smaller cameras in positions that you wouldn’t experience normally.”

Passive over Active

Shortly before Chris Johns took to the stage, we ambushed him over coffee. Sky raised eyebrows when it partnered with LG Electronics to endorse Passive Polarisation 3D screen tech (cleverly christened Cinema 3D at CES).

LG's 47LD950 passive 3D TV

With the majority of the TV industry backing Full HD active-shutter TVs over passive, that move seemed almost confrontational. Certainly LG’s Display division is actively railing against active-shutter screens, branding the technology a potential health hazard. So what’s behind the alliance, and where does Sky really stand on different 3D screen solutions?

“We carried out extensive consumer testing with active and passive LCD, plus active plasma – and 80 per cent of those interviewed preferred the passive option. They honestly did,” Johns tells us.

“I think that maybe people can’t get on with the flicker you tend to get from active glasses, particularly if you’re sensitive to it. It’s too disturbing. Of course, if you’re an AV purist I can see that you would want the improved resolution of active-shutter. When we started on the 3D development path everyone was saying we would need a 1080p solution, but the experience is not so good.”

However, Johns admits to being impressed with the rapid progress being made with no-glass autostereocopic 3D.

Nintendo 3DS offer glasses-free 3D viewing

“When I first saw the Nintendo 3DS screen I was wowed,” he confides. “I hadn’t seen auto-3D so clear before. So we approached them to offer codec support. It'll be interesting to see how Apple reacts to the increasing number of mobile products which are adopting auto-3D.”

Johns tells us that he has a Spatial View lenticular accessory for his iPhone which allows him to see stereoscopic 3D content without glasses, “but it’s like a 405 line television compared to what the Nintendo 3DS is offering. The 3DS is a very powerful device, compelling as well. I can’t see it being very long before the major tablet manufacturers are delivering some form of 3D offering that you can download to”.

If auto-3D continues to evolve as quickly has it has over the past year, the man from Sky believes it’s only a matter of time before it impacts on the mainstream TV market. “I think auto-3D could become the standard way of watching 3D on screens up to about 26in,” he predicts. “I don’t think the technology is there for bigger sets. In many ways auto-3D is perfect for gaming. That’s the market to watch.”

Combating health concerns

Back at the DTG briefing, there are concerns expressed about viewer discomfort caused by 3D. It’s an ongoing worry for those in the industry. Johns believes the best way to combat motion sickness and headaches is implement strict production guidelines. “We are desperate to harmonise production techniques across the entire world, not just Europe and Sky, so that we can deliver comfortable, safe viewing of 3D,” he says.

Some viewers get headaches with active-shutter 3D glasses

“Training is very important. You’ve got to understand how the brain actually fuses stereoscopic content, how convergence can affect the eyes. Understanding these principals allows you to understand what you’re actually producing when you start to play around with those cameras. It’s easy to create 3D but even easier to create bad 3D.”

Johns says at Sky they call it the ‘Ugly Baby’ syndrome. “Producers can get very upset when you criticise their work. You can’t say ‘this programme is rubbish’ so we try and encourage them to make their baby look a bit prettier. There is now a large number of content coming through the chain from people who think they know how to make 3D.

"But while a piece might look great the first time you see it on a 3D monitor, when you put it to side by side with some of the movie content coming through, or against material from people that have had a lot of experience doing it, inadequacies really can show.”

There’s time for one more question. What’s the most important thing Sky has learnt since launching 3D? Chris Johns smiles. “We've learnt not to sit on our haunches. Things move fast.”

Andy Clough

Andy is Global Brand Director of What Hi-Fi? and has been a technology journalist for 30 years. During that time he has covered everything from VHS and Betamax, MiniDisc and DCC to CDi, Laserdisc and 3D TV, and any number of other formats that have come and gone. He loves nothing better than a good old format war. Andy edited several hi-fi and home cinema magazines before relaunching in 2008 and helping turn it into the global success it is today. When not listening to music or watching TV, he spends far too much of his time reading about cars he can't afford to buy.