If you have recently treated yourself or the family to a new 3D TV, or are considering making an investment in 3D for the home soon, then you will no doubt want to know what's in store for the future of decent quality 3D content.
Hollywood has come under flack of late, with a rep from 3D TV manufacturer Panasonic claiming that Tinseltown's rush to produce "badly converted" 3D movies in the wake of the success of James Cameron's Avatar has "damaged 3D".
It's certainly true that even the most impressive camera and projection technology cannot improve a bad script or a poorly-directed movie. But where does this current feeling of unease about 3D leave 3D TV viewers? Where do producers and directors hope to see commercial 3D TV programming from the likes of of Sky and Virgin Media going in 2012 and beyond?
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While mainstream 3D TV coverage is likely to continue to be dominated by major sporting events such as the forthcoming London 2012 Olympics and other types of "event TV" – is there also a chance that we might soon start to see more investment from broadcasters in decent new 3D drama and documentary content?
Plus, it's not only broadcasters who are shaping the future of 3D TV content creation and delivery, with manufacturers such as Samsung and Sony recently launching their own 3D TV-on-demand services, to boost early adopter sales of their latest 3D television sets.
TV manufacturers and BBC offer 3D VOD
Sony, for example, recently announced its new 3D Experience video on demand streaming service for its line of Bravia LCD smart TVs, delivering 3D highlights of the latest movies, sports and teasers of 3D PS3 games via the Bravia Internet Video service.
The service will soon be extended to Sony's 3D-capable Blu-ray players, and, even though it is little more than a glorified advertising service for Sony movies and games right now, it is hoped that the 3D VOD offering will be improved over time, with Sony delivering on the somewhat vague promises to "further expand the content line-up and promote 3D Experience among content holders as a forum through which to showcase their 3D offerings."
For its part, Samsung has been quickest off the starting blocks in the emergent 3D TV market, already having captured over 50 per cent of market share in North America and Europe, according to German market researchers GfK. Samsung sold 50.5 percent of 3D TVs in Europe in May 2011, followed by Sony with a 21.8 percent market share, and LG Electronics and Panasonic with 9.3 and 9.2 per cent, respectively.
Samsung's latest move is to offer its ownfree 3D video-on-demand service offering free movies, music videos and nature documentaries, delivered via the "Explore 3D" App on Samsung Smart TVs.
EXPLORE 3D: TV manufacturers are now starting to offer their own exclusive 3D VOD services
And, not to be outdone by the early moves of Sky and Virgin Media into the 3D TV broadcast arena, the BBC is currently looking at VOD for 3D content, with Danielle Nagler, head of HD and 3D at the BBC, revealing at the recent 3DTV World Forum that "3D feels more instinctively like a VOD proposition in the long-term, rather than a channel proposition for the BBC."
The BBC is already filming some of its flagship entertainment properties, such asStrictly Come Dancing ("one of the most polished 3D shoots ever done in a studio")and has the 3D TV rights to major sporting events such as Wimbledon, which clearly shows that aunty is looking at 3D as a seriously important, long-term commercial proposition.
However, while the BBC's 3D baby steps andthe various promotional gimmicks from TV manufacturers are welcome amongst new or soon-to-be 3D TV buyers, the bottom line (for the most discerning viewers, at least) is knowing how and where proper, good quality 3D content is going to be produced and broadcast in the future.
The future of 3D event TV
Sky 3D has been instrumental in paving the way for mass market acceptance of the latest TV tech, with Sky's execs claiming that it hopes to do for 3D programming what it has already succeeded in doing for HD
John Cassy, director of Sky 3D, explained to delegates at the recent 3DTV World Forum that Sky now has"over 3.5 million homes, paying us an extra £10 a month" with over 50 channels now in HD."I can't see why we can't build the take up of 3D in this country, with a similar model."
Following that event, and speaking exclusively to TechRadar, Cassy also revealed that, even though Sky 3D has already been on air since October 2010, "it's fair to say that we are still fairly close to the start of our journey of 3D, but if you look at what we've achieved in this time, I think it has been a very strong start.
"We've delivered more than 120 live 3D sports events – more than any other broadcaster in the world – including some really major world events such as the Champions League Final, the Ryder Cup, the US Masters, the FA Cup final and more, across a broad number of sports.
"We also have deals in place with all the major Hollywood studios, and we are showing 3D films in regular slots every Friday and Sunday – and we expect that to increase in the coming year.Plus, we've also gone into new areas, including winning the first ever BAFTA for a 3D documentary with David Attenborough's Flying Monsters."
It's clearly been a busy ten months for Cassy and his team at Sky 3D, but he is in no way shy of admitting that they "still know that we've got a lot to do, because it is an early-stage technology and we are learning about it all of the time."
While they haven't released official viewing figures for some time, Sky's subscription numbers for Sky 3D are already into the (low) six figures, so what are the plans to expand and improve the 3D offering in the future?
3D London Olympics and Rugby World Cup
Cassy is bullish about his belief that Sky 3D is "is about providing the best of TV entertainment, but in a way that you have never seen it before - the biggest Premier League games, the biggest golfing events, the biggest movies, through to the best ballets or the most amazing exclusive factual shows. We are looking to try to drive "event television" – those things that are real treats for customers."
Researchers at GfK predict that around 1.5 million 3D-ready TV sets will have been sold in the UK by the time of the 2012 Olympics, also claiming that the initial take-up of 3D TV has been quicker than HD TVs and flat-screens.
"It's going to be a significant marketplace,"adds Cassy, warming to his theme, "and Sky is optimistic about what other people are and will be doing. It's great to see the BBC experimenting around the Wimbledon final coverage and doing a very good job.
"There are a couple of other big events coming up later this year, such as the Rugby World Cup finals. And there is already a big debate around whether the London Olympics will be in 3D. And Sky would of course love to see the relevant rights holders broadcast both of those events in 3D."
Where now for 3D drama?
Chasing the exclusive rights to ever-better quality 3D coverage of the world's biggest sports "event TV" is clearly a fairly obvious strategy for any broadcaster with a premium 3D offering, but what of 3D drama and documentary programming?
Sky has already made something of a splash in promoting cutting-edge arts and documentary 3D production, with Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake ballet, the aforementioned David Attenborough dinosaur documentary and the recent Kylie concert all being shot in 3D.
SWAN LAKE:Cutting-edge 3D arts programming from Sky
"We've also done lots more, such as a documentary with Brian May telling the story of 3D and music-based programmes with Sky Arts in their Songbooks' series," Cassy reminds TechRadar."So we are trying to broaden out the range of the kind of programming that we are providing, but inevitably sports and movies will always register pretty highly on our lists of things to get to viewers.
"In terms of new 3D drama, it is certainly something that we are looking at, but I don't think it is necessarily anything we are going to hurry into. The lead times, the logistics and the costs of drama – in 2D, let alone in 3D – are very significant. So we are treading carefully there. But I would hope that, before very long, you will see Sky do dramas in 3D.
"And then, on the documentary side, we've already worked with people like The History Channel and National Geographic. So we will continue to do our own 3D documentary making and we will start to partner more with these types of big specialist brands, who have real heritage in this area of programme-making."
Virgin plumps for 3D on-demand
Virgin Media also offers its customers 3D content via movies-on-demand, free tasters and trailers as well as 3D content exclusive to its XL package customers, having signed deals with Paramount, Disney and Warner Bros to broadcast the latest 3D movies soon after they are released.
Virgin has also offered sports fans live 3D sporting content from prestigious European sporting events, including the Roland Garros French Open. So what are the company's latest 3D plans to boost its competitive advantage over Sky, the BBC and other broadcasters?
"As the first company to commercially launch a 3D TV offering, Virgin Mediacontinues to offer families the most up-to-date 3D content available on the market," argues Virgin Media's head of On Demand development,Kevin O'Neil. "We think that our On Demand service offers the best range of 3D content and a great way for families to get their 3D fix, allowing them to pick and choose what they want to watch, when they want to watch it."
It's a solid marketing pitch, yet backed up by a decent range of 3D content on offer for all ages, with watch-when-you-like 3D blockbusters such as Disney's: TRON Legacy, Gulliver's Travels and Drive Angryand plenty of quality wildlife and sci-fi documentaries already on offer.
"We'll continue to work with 3D content providers such as Eurosport to bring our customers live sporting action in 3D," adds O'Neil. "Over the last few months, Virgin Media's 3D sports event coverage has gone from strength to strength, offering live 3D content from some of the most prestigious sporting events in Europe.
"The increase in 3D coverage of major sporting events demonstrates the progress which is being made in sports broadcasting. It also highlights the commitment to innovation and development of this new technology as Eurosport and ESPN have recently demonstrated.
3D CONCERTS: Sky is proud of its latest Kylie film
"The main challenge for the future is for content providers to consistently deliver the best 3D viewing experience whether through live transmission or on demand, and also to create cost-effective combined 2D/3D events taking advantage of the technology. Virgin Media is keen to help the 3D industry grow. There is enormous potential for development in terms of the types of shows and events which can be offered and we will continue to work closely with content providers in continuing to provide the best and most up-to-date programming available on the market.
"With the increasing numbers of Pay TV operators worldwide offering 3D linear or On Demand platforms, the demand for high quality 3D programming is increasing and content creators have an expanding market to provide content to. The Holy Grail for mass market take-up and acceptance isglassless 3D TVs, although some manufacturers are indicating that this may be five or more years away."
The Virgin Media exec is still cautious when it comes to committing to any specific promises for the future of 3D programming, beyond noting howhe expects to see an increasing number of 3D documentaries, dramas, music and arts programming, adding the caveat that,"programming standards must be maintained with a good rule of thumb being that if doesn't make good 2D viewing then 3D is unlikely to help – you need a strong format and a genuine narrative coupled with high production values and quality talent."
"It will take a bold filmmaker to produce a new drama or documentary in 3D beyond someone like Anthony Geffen of Atlantic Productions - who won a BAFTA 2011 for his film, Flying Monsters 3D - till the audience has reached a critical mass," argues Matthew Young, director of iPONT UK an innovator and technology partner to the likes of Sky and the BBC in the glasses-free (auto-stereoscopic) 3D market.
AUTO-STEREOSCOPIC: Although most in the TV industry think this is at least five years away for the home market
"The BBC has already said it was unclear as to whether it planned show the London Olympics 2012 in 3D. The numbers aren't there yet for it to make financial sense but that will change."
Young also reminds us that 3D TV is not (only) going to be driven by high-minded quality documentaries and cutting-edge sports and music festival coverage over the coming years, noting that 3D "adult-entertainment, 3D-porn and gambling with 'live' feeds will also feature next year.
Coming to grips with 3D camera tech
It is clear that broadcasters hope to push the provision of quality 3D TV content as one of the next major unique selling points to keep viewers watching their channels, or subscribing to their lucrative premium subscription packages. But what of the specific production issues and tech constraints that 3D TV directors currently face with the latest 3D camera tech?
"Some of the key challenges facing 3D event projects are camera set-up and also user experience," argues Niall Duffy, managing director at media tech services specialists Mediasmiths. "To begin with, 3D cameras are more expensive and complicated to set up which, in filming terms, means that typically there are a lot fewer camera angles than in 2D shoots, simply down to time constraints, meaning that the end product may feel less 'dynamic' to the viewer.
"The setting up of 3D cameras is still very cumbersome as well," adds Duffy,"which can have an additional effect - for example, in golf broadcasts, when you may need multiple angles for each putt on the final hole, this can be severely limited by the 3D angles available.
"There is still a scarcity of experience and capability when it comes to producing 3D content, but this is particularly felt in post-production and is simply down to the technology being relatively new and users not having had time to work with it yet."
In Duffy's expert opinion, he feels that once there is a strong volume of 3D content, in two to three years' time, "with content being generated more regularly the market will be primed and ready for 3D. In fact, the relatively high cost of producing 3D is ensuring that producers are committing to high-quality content created in the correct way. By the time the cost of production comes down, the techniques and technology to create good quality 3D content should be more widely known and available."
Finally, not all 3D content producers are convinced that broadcast 3D TV in the lounge is going to define the true future of 3D content, with Don Alvarez of 3D software design agency Cynergy Systems, telling us that, "3D TV is completely driven by manufacturer push at the moment. Demand will follow, but content naturally lags device introduction and content is what really motivates demand in the long term.
"We think the marking dollars focused on selling big 3D TVs are obscuring the real shift happening today towards 3D content viewed on smaller, personal displays. Whether it's a Nintendo 3DS, an LG Optimus 3D phone, or that rumoured upcoming 3D iPad, small format, personal displays let you go glasses-free at much more compelling price points than large living-room devices."
Clearly, not everybody in the TV or 3D content production industries think that this imminent proliferation of 3D-capable smartphones and mobile devices will be a threat to the production of quality 3D content, with Sky's John Cassyoffering his final word on the matter:
"In terms of marketing Sky 3D, the most obvious difficulty is the fact that you cannot show a 3D image in print or on most 2D PC or TV screens. So the more Nintendo 3DSes and 3D-capable smartphones and tablets that are in customers' hands over the next couple of years, the more opportunities 3D broadcasters such as Sky have to promote their 3D content."