Preparing for a 3D future

15 February 2011 |

3D technology is slowly but surely infiltrating mainstream culture.

Driven by the huge success of 3D movies, 3D imaging techniques are becoming an increasingly common feature in cinemas and homes and could go on to even revolutionise mobile phones.

3D images are traditional 2D images designed to trick the brain into thinking it is seeing depth. The most common technique for achieving this is called stereoscopy, which uses stereo pairs of images – one for each eye – that the brain brings together to complete the 3D illusion. The method was invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, but improvements to the way in which stereo image pairs are presented and filtered for human eyes has given 3D imaging a newfound popularity in recent years.

For the global wholesale telecoms sector, laying the foundations for a 3D future – particularly with regards to the more imminent demand for terrestrial 3D TV – could prove to be essential.

How widespread is the adoption of 3D technology?

According to analyst firm Screen Digest, there were over 9,000 3D screens worldwide by March 2010, following an astonishing global growth rate of 245.5% in 2009. With 3D film Avatar also becoming the highest grossing movie of all time, 3D cinema has finally established itself as a viable format.

Comparatively, 3D TV technology remains in its infancy. According to LCD market research firm WitsView, 3D TV penetration is estimated to rise from 1% to nearly 20% for all TV purchases in the US by 2015. Although television manufacturers are investing heavily in 3D technology and many television networks worldwide launched commercial 3D services during 2010, including the UK’s Sky 3D and ESPN in the US, the viewing habits for 3D TV and the best practises for optimising content on the small screen are far from defined.

What challenges does terrestrial 3D TV pose for telecoms operators?

A report from Broadcast Australia has identified that consumer take-up of 3D TV will be reliant on the provision of appropriate high-quality content supported by delivery to home TVs. Sport will be an initial driver for demand and plans for a 3D Discovery network by Discovery Communications, Sony and IMAX – which will feature 3D documentaries on space, history and nature – is expected to promote further interest in the technology. Yet the report also highlights that a commitment towards 3D TV must be made by the relevant parties, including governments to establish policies and regulatory frameworks, key industry players to guide technology decisions, broadcasters to generate local content and network operators to ensure the required infrastructure is in place.

What are the different methods for delivering 3D TV content and how do they affect bandwidth?

The majority of 3D TVs on the market today offer frame sequential stereoscopic presentation with active shutter glasses, ranging from frame rates of 200Hz up to 600Hz – with the higher frame rates also enabling enhanced conventional 2D viewing. The inherent problem remains, however, that most manufacturers offer 3D glasses that work exclusively with their specific TV sets.

Broadcast Australia indicates there are two broad approaches to delivering stereoscopic 3D signals to the television: frame compatible and non-frame compatible. Frame compatible stores together left- and right-eye images within a single normal TV video frame. This can be achieved through a number of formats but the resolution of the final 3D image is typically half of an equivalent 2D image in order to fit all the necessary information into a single frame. Non-frame compatible displays left- and right eye images frame sequentially on the TV screen. This can be transmitted to the TV either by two synchronised video streams in full resolution, or via a single full-resolution 2D stream transmitted for one eye while the TV set uses extra 3D information contained in a separate synchronised data stream. While frame compatible content can only be viewed in 3D mode with a 3D TV set, this type of content is more easily delivered via existing 2D transmission infrastructure that has been upgraded.

Consequently, most commercial and 3D trials to date have been with frame compatible content. Non-frame compatible content on the other hand is backwards compliant for 2D viewing on existing 2D TV sets without modification and could therefore be delivered via a common signal stream using less than two conventional HDTV channels. This, however, entails significant encoding complexities and is estimated to require approximately 40% to 70% more bandwidth than 2D HDTV. Broadcast Australia believes that whichever 3D TV format becomes dominant, additional bandwidth will be required.

What other 3D technologies are expected to enter the market in the future?

Technology giant IBM recently predicted that consumers may be able to purchase mobile phones capable of projecting 3D holographic images of the person they are calling by as early as 2015. Although the concept still seems more fitting for the set of Star Wars, a number of top manufacturers revealed their designs for 3D phones during 2010. Japanese electronics manufacturer Sharp has confirmed plans to release a smartphone with a 3D display for which users will not require special glasses to view the 3D imagery, while images and specifications of Samsung’s first 3D-enabled phone were also leaked online during last year.

While no official release date has yet to be confirmed by either manufacturer, many industry insiders expect the arrival of the first 3D-enabled mobile phone to happen sometime this year. Like 3D terrestrial TV, the consumer demand for 3D phones remains unknown, but as 3D technology continues to improve, it is certainly another development the telecoms sector will be keeping a close eye on. Meanwhile, the industry should also begin preparing for 3D by making a few key initial decisions with governments, particularly regarding the issue of spectrum policy.

Contact: Broadcast Australia For further information, contact Martin Farrimond, general manager of new platforms at Broadcast Australia at: