3D May Hit Cable Sooner Than Later

With all the excitement surrounding 3D TV technology at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, cable television is looking to jump on the bandwagon.

“There’s been a lot of success with 3D movies in Hollywood, but the opportunity that cable sees is broader than that,” says David Broberg, VP of consumer video technology at CableLabs, a non-profit cable-television research and development organization. “In other words, it really takes sports programming and special-events programming to make 3D successful in the cable environment.”

Several cable entities have recently announced plans for 3D channels in 2010, including ESPN and Discovery, but several impediments remain.  The most pressing issue may be the lack of official standard for transmitting 3D. Although this presents a major obstacle, there is still hope that widespread 3D content will hit cable sooner than later.

“There are standards bodies working on [creating a 3D standard for cable], but it is possible using the existing standards for cable to deliver stereoscopic 3D without any changes at all,” says Broberg. “We see this as a transitional phase. The standards bodies are developing a long-term plan to provide stereoscopic content over cable using updated standards and eventually new set-top boxes, but, before that can all take place, I think it’s very likely that the cable industry will begin deploying stereoscopic content using frame-compatible approaches.”

The frame-compatible 3D format carries separate left and right video signals within the video frame used to convey a conventional 2D HD signal, squeezing them to fit within the space of one image. This allows the format to be delivered through existing standards and equipment as if it were a 2D HD signal. The two signals can be squeezed into the frame either vertically (top to bottom) or horizontally (side by side).

“The cable industry is investigating both of those formats,” Broberg says. “But we currently favor the top/bottom format based on our investigation to this point.”

The downside is that, when two signals are combined into a single frame’s bandwidth, image resolution is automatically downgraded. It still produces a much clearer 3D image than the old-fashioned red/green anaglyph but is a resolution downgrade from 2D HD.

“There is a tradeoff in spatial resolution,” Broberg points out. “So you’re basically trading spatial resolution for dimensional resolution.”

The long-term goal remains finding a solution that will enable 3D content to be delivered at resolutions and frame rates as high as 1080p/60 for both eyes. That means new 3D-ready cable boxes for all, which is no small task.

“I don’t see it as a hard switch over [to 3D-ready cable boxes]. I see it as a migratory progression of new set-top boxes,” says Broberg. “Assuming consumer interest in it persists, I would expect this to become just another feature in the technology of new set-tops. They will replace the current set-tops, and there will be a migration from this frame-compatible delivery, which is using today’s set-tops, to full separate left and right delivery using the new set-tops.”

Of course, this all depends on the longevity of 3D and consumers’ long-term interest in the product. If television programmers and manufacturers have their way, this is just the beginning.

Discovery (with partners IMAX and Sony) and ESPN have already announced plans for 3D channels, and DirecTV is expected to make a similar announcement at CES. Meanwhile, the new generation of 3D televisions being rolled out in droves there promises to convert the frame-compatible image back into its original high-res form, creating a theater-esque 3D experience.

“A lot of it depends on what the consumer response is,” says Broberg. “I know the TV manufacturers are pushing really hard on it, but it really depends on whether consumers really embrace this and whether they actually use the 3D glasses with these sets or even realize these new sets are going to be 3D.”

Regardless of the long-term outcome of 3D on cable, 2010 is already shaping up to be the year of 3D.

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