THERE HASN'T BEEN a week gone by lately without one of the big electronics companies including Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and LG trying to plug the hot new thing - 3D television.
We've already seen different versions of 3D come and go. But this looks to be different as it has already received the backing of the big names above, as well as Rupert Murdoch's mighty Sky TV, which has already shown Premiership matches in 3D.
Speaking at a recent Westminster E-forum on 3D technology, Paul Gray, director of TV research at analyst Displaysearch, said that there is a 'fire triangle' that a technology needs all three parts of to be successful.
"You need the hardware people want to buy, you need to have something which is worth listening or watching on that hardware, and you need somebody in between who can make sure that content owners get paid and at the same time consumers don’t get ripped off," he said.
Gray gave five out of 10 in terms of the 3D hardware we currently have due to the choice available and different brands that could provide it, but all at a very expensive price.
As far as content went, he gave it four out of 10. It is possible to deliver 3D by satellite and cable now, and there is an agreed Blu-ray format for it but, Gray explained, "You have to have HD first. HD in Europe is very, very immature. Something like 12 million households in Europe have HD at the moment."
So 3D TV is at a very early stage, but the large electronics companies have looked at it as the big technology to push, for different reasons.
"If you are Panasonic, it sees a big advantage for plasma, and therefore a chance to do something distinct and different," Gray said. "If you're Sony, it is clearly a major part of a broader revitalisation of its electronics business."
"If you're Samsung or LG - our research says that they have 50 per cent of the TVs in Europe. Clearly the main thing they have to do is defend their position from everybody else. But for the whole industry, the most important thing is to revalue the whole TV business."
Last year, even with the recession, the TV plasma and LCD business grew. The problem was that revenues went down, and the industry urgently needed something to change this. It looks like 3D came at the right time for the companies to increase their perceived value.
One thing that might help 3D uptake is that it is an accessible technology for all electronics companies, which means that prices will go down due to fierce competition for customers.
The set-makers use commodity components to make 3D TVs. Each has its own nuances - such as whether you use passive or active technology - but it is accessible to all.
Gray said, "There is no unique 3D technology. There is no special secret sauce. 3D comes from proprietary, commercial market chips. Chipmakers in general provide the software, and you can make the display panels out of conventional LCD panels."
But to be successful, 3D prices have to be cut from the current typical £1,700 price point. Gray estimated that to get 10 per cent of the market to go 3D, you need sets retailing at about £800, which should be the aim for 3D pricing.
Another way to help the 3D uptake in Britain will be if it is available on terrestrial TV. HD is now available on Freeview, and some experts are already thinking about how 3D can be beamed to our sets without the need for a big Sky subscription.
Tony Mattera, director of digital switchover network design at comms infrastructure provider Arqiva, said that it is possible to get 3D on Freeview, but that it has to be done in a way that minimises the impact on 2D viewers.
It can't go the Sky route of sending a signal through an existing set-top box to be rendered by a 3D TV. It will be fine for a paid TV channel that is meant to be 3D only, but unfortunately it's not compatible with 2D TVs. This means that you will have to send a 3D as well as 2D signal on free-to-air TV, which takes up a lot of bandwidth.
So instead it's more likely that for free-to-air TV that broadcasters will send a 2D image with additional data for a 3D viewer which will be recomposed using an additional set-top box. The 2D viewer will still be able to watch TV without issues.
"Do we need this 2D and 3D compatibility?," said Mattera. "Maybe for a paid 3D environment you don’t, but in a limited bandwidth environment potentially we will."
The gaming industry could also have a potentially big impact on getting 3D into our homes. PC games manufacturers are now designing games in 3D rather than 'retro-fitting' them after they've been made.
But it's consoles where we might see the biggest 3D push. 3D games made for the PlayStation 3 and XBox are now able to run on 3D TVs without any trouble.
Of course Sony will be pushing 3D games big time, considering it is now a main core strategy for its entire business with its Blu-ray format a big factor. And Nintendo has already announced that the successor to the DS will be in 3D - without glasses.
But as all involved in 3D technology will tell you, we are right at the bottom of a potential bell curve. But when pricing comes down and we start to accept the technology and the glasses, it does look like it is here to stay.
The broadcasters want it, the hardware makers want it, and from the success of 3D cinema films and Sky's broadcasting of it, we want it as well. It might take more than a decade to really see it hit home, but it will. µ
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