Why the Old World Matters for 3D

Europe’s enthusiastic embrace of 3D is good news for the technology’s future in the U.S. 9/13/2010 06:22:00 AM Eastern

Anyone who thinks that the U.S. and Japan are the epicenter
of all things 3D obviously wasn’t following the news coming
out of IBC in Amsterdam last week, where it sometimes
seemed as if everyone had a 3D announcement. In fact, when it comes
to 3D television, the old world
of European TV, which was slow
to adopt HD television, seems
to be embracing the new world
of stereoscopic television faster
than any region outside Japan.
And that is very good news for
the future of 3D in the U.S.,
analysts say.

A recent B&C survey of 3D
activity in Europe found that
broadcasters and multichannel
operators in at least 15 countries
have done 3D productions
or launched channels. This October
alone will see major 3D
channel launches in the U.K.,
Germany and Russia.

“Worldwide, all of the markets
are moving, but I think Europe
is leading and the U.S. is catching
up,” says Steve Schklair,
CEO of 3D technology provider
3ality Digital Systems.

For U.S. companies eyeing
the potential of 3D, the rapid embrace of 3D by European firms is good
news both in terms of volume—the fragmented European TV landscape
offers many more potential clients in addition to the U.S.—and the development
of standards that will ultimately help reduce costs.

Unlike the acrimonious debate over standards that slowed the deployment
of high-definition television, major organizations such as the
European Broadcast Union and the DVB Project are now working hand
in hand with their North American and Asian counterparts to smooth
and standardize the deployment of 3D equipment and services.

DVB’s Executive Director Peter Siebert notes that the group began
work about a year ago for a specification that allows existing digital HD
set-top boxes to communicate with 3D sets, and that this work should
be completed by year-end. “Everything has been going very smoothly,”
Siebert says. “There is a general interest in the industry to have uniform
standards so that we are not confusing the end user and fragmenting
the market.”

David Wood, EBU’s deputy technical director, agrees. “The show is
on the road,” he says. “This October, we’ll see channels launched in
the U.K., France and Germany using the frame-compatible format that
works over the existing HD infrastructure with the 3D sets people are
now buying.”

Early European experiments are also highlighting some of the emerging
business models for 3D production and distribution. One key trend
is the importance of forming alliances outside
the television industry with consumer
electronics manufacturers or with companies
that can offer distribution in bars, clubs or
cinemas for additional revenues.

Insight Media estimates that about 1.4 million
3D sets will be sold in Europe in 2010,
growing to 3.9 million next year. But that
will still put 3D sets in only a tiny portion of
the 292 million European TV homes.

To overcome the lack of 3D sets in the
home, BSkyB launched its Sky 3D channel
in more than 1,000 pubs and clubs in the
U.K. in April. This move has exposed over
1 million people in the U.K. to 3D content
and created buzz for the Oct. 1 launch of
the channel to subscribers. “It created some
revenues at a time when there were few sets in the home, and it was great
way to promote 3D,” Schklair notes.

Similar alliances have also been popular both in Europe and in the U.S.
Last May, Eurosport partnered with Panasonic to beam 3D coverage of the
French Open to retail outlets in
Europe. In the U.S., DirecTV
has partnered with Panasonic
for one of its 3D channels, and
Discovery is setting up a joint
venture with Sony and IMAX
for its 3D channel.

But here, as elsewhere, the
hype surrounding all this activity
needs to be put in perspective.
According to Douglas
I. Sheer, CEO and chief analyst
at D.I.S. Consulting, which just
completed what may be the
first major study of the market
for a wide variety of 3D production
equipment, all the European
activity “reinforces the
idea that this is a serious global
movement that goes beyond the
U.S., and that the interest in 3D
is not frivolous.” Yet Sheer also
stresses that the market for 3D
equipment is “still in its early
days,” and notes that only 1%
of all mobile vans in Europe are 3D-capable.

That caution is echoed by some major vendors. “There still aren’t many
3D channels,” says Stephan Würmlin Stadler, CEO of LiberoVision, which
introduced innovative 3D replay technology at IBC in 2009. “We found
that ESPN and Sky were interested, but that was it. With a lot of broadcasters,
their budgets are already so tight that I don’t know if you can
squeeze more money out of them for 3D.”

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