Inside the world's first 3D satellite broadcaster

We visit Japan to see where the 3D TV revolution began

Anaglyph glasses

Satellite broadcaster Sky has made no secret of its 3D ambitions. Using the Sky+HD platform, it will introduce a 3D service next month.

It goes without saying that this puts Sky at the forefront of broadcasting technology. But in Japan, a much smaller satcaster has already been paving the way with its own innovative 3D broadcasts.

BS11 is a relative minnow in the competitive seas of Japan's commercial broadcasting. Yet for a number of years it's been setting the global pace when it comes to over-the-air 3D.

Tokyo bound

Home Cinema Choice Editor Steve May paid a visit to its HQ in Tokyo for a look at its plucky operation and a taste of 3D things to come.

BS11 first began broadcasting back in December 2007, and – amazingly – 3D was part of the schedule even at that early point. The station has a reputation for being tech-friendly, and is part-funded by some big names in consumer electronics.

The largest shareholder in the company is Bic Camera, a giant electronics retail chain in Japan. It's from here that viewers can track down the Hyundai 3D screens required for the service.

The channel itself is free-to-air, with no subscription required. A look through the station's programme guide is predictably eclectic. In amongst the anime shows (.hack//SIGN and Hime being two examples) and Ultraman reruns are classic samurai movies, American Idol (!) and local sitcoms.

Sandwiched amongst these are the 3D segments that have brought HCC to town. These are broadcast daily in five-minute chunks made up of a mix of computer animation and short films, including a paraglider ride over the Japanese countryside. The latter is provided to BS11 by the government as part of an agricultural promotion ('mutual PR' I was told). Coming soon is Golf Yoga (!) and a guide to Hawaiian hula.

Hiroshi Endo is the general manager of the engineering department in BS11's programming division. It's his job to oversee the 3D transmissions, leading a team of 20 engineers in total. When I visited, the satcaster was considering the formation of a 3D-specific group. Given that the entire company only numbers 50, the proportion turned over to the technical side is considerable.

Endo tells me: 'When more people begin watching 3D next year, we plan on increasing our coverage, as well as offering advertisers the ability to produce 3D commercials. We have the know-how to develop that side of the market.'

As with Sky's proposal, BS11 uses an HD platform to deliver side-by-side/half resolution 3D images. The end result is a convincing 3D illusion when viewed with active shutter glasses. The paraglider ride conveys a good sense of depth, even if the resolution is lacking when compared to a hi-def 2D broadcast.

Endo explains that his R&D team are currently looking at using upscaling technology to address the shortfall in image resolution. 'That will make our broadcasts a better match for 3D from 1080p sources,' he reveals. 'We think we can increase the detail.'

When not broadcasting 3D, BS11 offers viewers a mix of HD and SD content. Despite transmitting 3D segments for several years, there's still the sense that the operation is experimental ('3D is a brand-new market – nobody knows the correct way to do things just yet'). And the number of viewers is undeniably low.

As a free-to-air station, BS11 isn't exactly sure how many viewers it has tuning in to its 3D transmissions, but admits the current lack of 3D-compatible screens is restricting its reach. 'Hyundai is only manufacturing around 200 3D TVs a month,' reveals Endo. 'These come in 32 and 46in sizes, but availability is poor.'

Your own private 3D world

An alternate route to 3D is via personal 3D-viewing glasses. These are currently made and sold by Vuzix. The company has a range of video glasses, some for consumer use (wearing them, the viewer has the equivalent of a 50in screen suspended in front of him) and some for pro/military use.

3D is supported by a number of glasses in the company's range, including the iWear AV920, which creates a display roughly equivalent to watching a 62in 3D display from a distance of nine feet. Keiichiro Fujii, from Vuzix Japan, told me that while the 3D-compatible glasses are popular, more programming and improvements in image quality are required to really drive the market.

The quality issue should be resolved by new software, he says. 'The mobile TV market in Japan, called One-seg TV, was originally transmitted at 15fps, with the result that images stuttered. But upscaling software now found in higher-end phone brands like Sony and Panasonic increases this to 30fps, giving a much smoother image. Similar developments will aid 3D TV. The human eye is very sensitive to vertical resolution, and it's this that can be improved.'

According to Endo, being an early pioneer in 3D TV came at a high price. 'When BS11 began, hardware was in short supply and very expensive, but things are changing now. We believe that there will be an explosion in 3D technology and editing software during 2010 and prices will really come down.

Soon anyone will be able to make a 3D movie.' He adds: 'We've found that it takes around two to three years to train operatives how to shoot in 3D. The interesting thing is that 2D professionals tend to come to 3D with preconceptions about programme making. We actually find it easier to educate new people. No experience is actually better when it comes to 3D programme making.'

Ultimately, the 3D revolution is a question of 'when' rather than 'if'. It's all about exposure, says the man from BS11: 'The World Cup and the next Olympics will prove very important for 3D. These will be the main opportunity for the public to experience 3D TV. When that happens there's no turning back'.

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