Forget the hype - budgets cuts are defining TV technology.
The intensive hype around 3DTV that marked this year's football World Cup continued, not all that surprisingly, at September's IBC broadcast technology conference in Amsterdam. Roaming the halls, you could easily have been convinced that the format was on the cusp of ubiquity.
However, if you poked any of the broadcast professionals at the event, a different story emerged. Andy Quested, CTO of BBC HD, was blunt. The broadcaster was pushing ahead aggressively with its introduction of high-definition (HD) across its schedules but when it came to 3D, there were serious questions as to whether it was either sustainable or justifiable.
Then, there was the case of David Wood, a senior figure at both the European Broadcast Union and in the DVB digital TV standards organisation. With his DVB hat on, it was all systems go for 3D. The body has a standard that will be published before the end of the year and, at IBC, demonstrated 3D transmissions in the satellite, cable and terrestrial versions of its second-generation system. But with his EBU hat on, Wood noted that the umbrella group for most major European channels 'has no position' on 3D.
DVB's proposed 3D standard is itself revealing. Work on the initial version has been driven by commercial viability. Specifically, it was decided that at least DVB-3D 1.0 would have to be fully compatible with existing set-top boxes. Images are therefore delivered in a 'frame compatible' format with the left and right eye data sets delivered either side-by-side or top-and-bottom in a single transmission stream. In addition, there are multiple variants, depending on whether the user broadcasts a progressive or interlaced frame format at a resolution of 720 or 1080 lines and a frequency of 50Hz or 60Hz.
This seems a very conscious attempt to be all things to all men. Also, given that DVB is not the only digital TV standard out there, it smacks of a technological land-grab - and this is an organisation that has so far done a much far better job of marketing its standards family than its rivals have with theirs. Yet, the dominant impression is of something tentative about the proposal.
This is 3D with explicit compromises, when all the sales pitches are about the 'quality' of the experience. Cramming the stereoscopic components into a single stream will inevitably lead to some loss of resolution but it will not upset the installed base nor require that those companies that are prepared to offer channels subsidise an expensive generation of new set-top boxes. Rather the onus is on the consumer to buy a display capable of assembling the signal.
Disney and Pixar's creative director John Lasseter and Avatar director James Cameron have brought 3D to cinemas on big budgets; their TV equivalents are playing a more cautious game.
Sports of all sorts
'It's going to start with live special events and sports, backed up by Hollywood's 3D catalogue,' says Maurice Patel of TV tools specialist Autodesk. 'There are some good economic reasons for that, and one of the biggest is that you don't have any post-production. There is an investment in setting up the coverage, but then you feed that into an outside broadcast truck and out to transmission.
'If, by contrast, you are looking at long-form drama or even something entirely studio-based like a sitcom, then post does become a factor. And because a lot of new factors and techniques become involved, the numbers get bigger.'
This explains why two of 3D's broadcaster-evangelists are BSkyB in the UK and the US cable sports network ESPN, part of the Walt Disney Company. Both make a lot of money from covering major live events on subscription channels and pay-per-view.
And it is not just the immediacy of their content that makes their channels predictable early adopters of 3D. For, say, coverage of Premier League football, Sky can identify the best 3D camera positions for all the clubs' grounds and then simply replicate those set-ups week-in, week-out with confidence. Much the same might go for a concert venue, although what is on stage will vary from show to show. By contrast, long-form drama can have many set-ups, each individual to that production, and result in only 90 minutes content for the resulting investment.
So, sport in particular provides a comparatively low-cost way of delivering what the subscriber sees as premium and exclusive content. In terms of 3DTV, it's a no-brainer.
But broadcaster reticence over 3D also reflects more widespread concerns about cost. In the early days of HD, a partnership of public and private broadcasters helped to generate the first wave of widely distributed content. The natural history documentary series 'Planet Earth' played an extraordinary role in popularising HD not just in the UK but worldwide. An enormous logistical undertaking, it required the combined efforts of the BBC, Discovery Communications of the US, Japan's NHK and Canada's CBC. The loud corridor gossip out of IBC was that even more modest pathfinder production deals are not yet being struck for 3D.
Public broadcasters may repeatedly plead poverty, but they have a long history of ushering in TV innovations such as colour, widescreen and more recently HD. Today, though, almost all of them have had their budgets cut or frozen and are still having to transition much of their output to more expensive HD formats.
Consider again, the case of the BBC. While Andy Quested says that its programme to fill out the HD schedule continues unabated, there has been some surprise that a number of the corporation's flagship dramas in the 2010 autumn schedule continue in standard definition. Such shows include Merlin, Spooks and New Tricks, all solid ratings winners.
'Nobody is ignoring 3D, but even before the recession struck everybody had a lot more on the agenda,' says Rainer Kellerhals of Microsoft's Communications Sector. 'Part of it is bringing in HD workflows that are themselves expensive, but then there is also the issue of distributing and producing content to be seen across a range of platforms, not just broadcast, but online, on-demand and so on.'
Thus, while 3D represented the glamourous side of IBC, the demand for cost-effective workflows and content management was probably doing more to drive the event's business side.
'It can come down to some quite simple things,' says Daniel Shapiro, director of marketing at graphics specialist Nvidia. 'You do have some content that is going to be seen in 3D, HD, SD, online and then on portable devices and you need to go through the step of optimising that content for each of those environments. It's an extra production step that wasn't there before, so it's a cost.'
None of this is necessarily a bad thing for 3D's future. Displays may be available, but the viewing angles are highly restricted. They have very narrow 'sweet spots' of typically less than 30', so the idea of the family sitting down to watch even Pixar's Toy Story 3 together and all sharing a good experience may still be some way off. Indeed, for home use, the ideal 3D screen user today is a single user - in other words, a gamer.
'That's where it will happen first,' says Shapiro, whose company helped bring Ubisoft's Avatar 3D video game to market. 'It is one player, typically, going into the immersive environment.'
Bill Collis is CEO of The Foundry, a leading post-production software players in 3D and he too is not waiting on TV to grow his business. 'I'm not looking at that tomorrow, but there is a lot of feature film work going on, including in Europe. And that's good for TV eventually - we'll have done a lot of work refining the tools and the flows by the time those guys are ready.'
There is one more element. Broadcasters still have to resolve the question of what does and does not work in HD - or more to the point, what parts of a schedule must be upgraded, might be upgraded and will be upgraded when HD is ubiquitous. If 3D is not yet on the roadmap, it is not only for the sake of economics.
At the same time, some people believe they already have the answer to that question, can see where the production flow should go and even think that we can solve the other huge obstacle - the glasses.
For now, though, don't worry about replacing that plasma. We are high on the first stage on a hype cycle. Expect a dip - then let's look at what might happen when things get serious.
To that end, part two of this feature looks at the views of 3D optimists, including Avatar producer Jon Landau.