Technology

New Bird Expands DirecTV's HD Pipe

Speculation ensues over possible 3D service 12/29/2009 07:09:39 PM Eastern

Pay-TV
operator DirecTV proclaimed the launch of its newest satellite, DirecTV 12, to
be a success and said it will boost its HD capacity by some 50 percent when it
becomes operational in the second quarter of 2010.

The
Boeing 702 model satellite lifted off on an International Launch Services
Proton Breeze M vehicle at 4:22 p.m. PT Monday Dec. 28 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in
Kazakhstan and ground station controllers in South Africa have made contact
with the satellite and confirmed that all systems are functioning properly,
DirecTV said Wednesday. DirecTV 12 is the eleventh owned-and-operated satellite
in the DirecTV fleet, and it will be maneuvered into a circular orbit at 102.8
degrees West longitude.

It will
join four other DirecTV birds that already deliver HD programming, allowing the
pay-TV operator to deliver over 200 HD channels, compared to just over 130
today. The new satellite will also increase DirecTV's delivery of local HD
broadcasts and expand movie choices on its DIRECTV Cinema and DIRECTV on Demand
services.

"With
the successful launch of our DIRECTV 12 satellite, we will have the capacity to
dramatically expand HD and movie choices for our customers and further extend
our content and technology leadership," said DirecTV CTO Romulo Pontual in
a statement. "With a robust fleet of 11 satellites, including five
spacecraft delivering HD programming, advanced transmission and set-top box
technology, we are able to provide our customers with an unparalleled viewing
experience and maintain a significant competitive advantage for many years to
come."

The
launch of the new satellite is also fueling speculation that DirecTV will
launch a 3D HD service next year, something 3D insiders have suggested
privately for months. The blog HDGuru.com reported yesterday that DirecTV will
use DirecTV 12 to start an all-3D HD channel offering an assortment of movies,
sports and programs in 3D, and that it will announce the new service at the
Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next week. According to the report,
which cited unnamed sources, DirecTV's current HDTV boxes will receive a
firmware upgrade to allow existing subscribers to receive HD 3D programming
that will be compatible with new 3D-capable HDTV sets from Panasonic, Sony,
Samsung, LG and other TV makers, as well as existing Mitsubishi DLP sets that
will require a 3D converter box. All the sets would require DirecTV subscribers
to wear special glasses to view the 3D content.

DirecTV
spokesman Robert Mercer said he couldn't comment on the HDGuru.com story. But
in an email message, Mercer did allow that "3D is something we are very
interested in and we're looking at all of the various pieces of the puzzle that
need to be put together."

While 3D
has created buzz in movie theaters, including both theatrical titles like
"Avatar" and live broadcasts of sporting events such as last year's BCS college
football championship game, delivering it to the living room remains a
challenge for multichannel operators. DirecTV is seen as the most likely U.S.
pay-TV operator to launch a 3D service because it enjoys a national footprint,
it has already deployed bandwidth-efficient MPEG-4 set-tops with powerful
processing chips, and moreover, it has already established the precedent of
selling expensive subscription packages like "NFL Sunday Ticket" to sports
aficionados.

Sports
executives say that a pay-per-view model would be necessary to subsidize the
high costs of live 3D HD production, and several have suggested that DirecTV
could launch a year-round "3D Sunday Ticket" with a mix of 3D sports coverage
throughout the year.

Movies
and other entertainment content would be more readily available in 3D, given
how many new 3D productions are coming into the pipeline. Archive content can
also be converted from 2D to 3D through a variety of post-production processes,
and an Edison, N.J. firm called HDLogix says it can convert 2D content to 3D in
real-time using sophisticated processing software. HDLogix demonstrated its
technology during a Dallas Cowboys game earlier this month, but it was only
used to create anaglyph 3D images, not the stereoscopic 3D format that is being
adopted by major set-makers. HDLogix plans to demonstrate live 2D to
stereoscopic 3D conversion at CES next week.

HDLogix
is one of several firms offering such "dimensionalization" technology, says
Discovery Chief Media Technology Officer John Honeycutt, who is watching such
technology closely but has no firm 3D plans. Honeycutt is dubious about the
ability to do such 2D to 3D conversion in real-time. But he thinks that
intensive software processing might be a cost-effective way to take Discovery
archive content and make it 3D in post-production, as opposed to the extra
costs of producing new shows in 3D.

"I have
not seen a real-time one that's blown me away," says Honeycutt. "From our
perspective, we're focused on quality. If there's a post-production process
that takes a few hours and you can get it right, that may be more
cost-effective, and it may be possible to provide a 3D experience."

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