What's the deal with 3D TV?

Jim Barthold

So, as Jerry Seinfeld might ask, what's the deal with 3D TV? Its arrival has been presaged by events ranging from the ridiculous (a Cablevision-MSG broadcast of a Rangers-Islanders hockey game that might have attracted hundreds of viewers to a 2D showing) to the sublime (Catholic TV using 3D as a learning tool). It's reported that sports will drive 3D usage and then programmers hype golf and soccer as headline events.

In the age of digital set-top boxes from satellite, cable and telco providers, computers and even DVRs, TVs have become commodities. It no longer requires a home equity loan to buy an HDTV so the time is ripe for something new--How about 3D? It doesn't work with existing sets and it costs more than HD.

Avoid or ignore, for the moment, whether anyone wants to have television come alive in the family room or whether Buddy Holly 3D glasses are going to become the de rigueur fashion trend. Also ignore whether anyone will hold back on a flat screen HD purchase just to see soccer in 3D. The big question in the scheme of things is what, if anything, does 3D TV do to a cable operator now struggling to find enough bandwidth to compete on a level HD playing field with satellite and telco?

"In the short term 3D TV is the equivalent of adding a new HD channel to your lineup," said Mark Schaffer, a product management director at Motorola. "It's a service that takes the same amount of bandwidth as HD but it is a unique service that would require its own slot on the operator's plant."

Motorola, as one part of the FCC-targeted duopoly of cable set-top box makers (Cisco is the other) needs to be there technologically if cable operators decide to throw caution to the wind and bandwidth to the masses and deploy 3D TV. Making it work on a cable system requires some "nuances," Schaffer said, starting with a change in the HDMI connection between the set-top and the TV.

Using CEA HDMI spec 1.4a, 3D metadata can pass between the set-top and TV and tell the TV whether the format is side-by-side, top-bottom and what resolution should be displayed. This is important because it lets a cable viewer seamlessly channel surf to a 3D channel and see the picture through those $200 Buddy Holly glasses that are integral to the experience.

On the positive side for cable, 3D is really not that much different than HD: "It just looks like the picture is duplicated out of the left and right side and top and bottom. There are capabilities inside the set-top to handle that," Schaffer said. "From the programmer's perspective the equipment they use to encode the signals is identical. We're left with nuance; how to create a good 3D experience in the home using existing equipment."

Those nuances are moving along at the speed of a freight train crossing the desert, Schaffer said. Twelve months ago Motorola was working with a "very limited subset of what we have today" to deliver 3D content. "Three months ago things changed pretty dramatically with the announcement of a new generation of 3D TV sets... that are much more in line with how we distribute high definition television today."

Three months from now some viewers will have seen Tiger Woods return to golf in 3D.

So we pretty much know the answers to the technical question about 3D TV. It's possible today. The queston of who wants 3D TV won't be answered for a while yet. - Jim