CES' 3D focus

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Electronics firms roll out the hardware at CES
LG, Samsung introducing 3D TVs
TV makers bet on 3D but payoff uncertain
ESPN, Discovery to launch 3D TV networks

In 2000, when director-producer Pierre de Lespinois created the first HDTV series "The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne," he had to beg, borrow and invent to get the gear he needed. Today, de Lespinois and his Evergreen Films are pushing the next boundary, producing content in 3D. But unlike the early days of HD, de Lespinois has all the equipment he needs.

"Even though it's the beginning of 3D, the manufacturers of hardware and software are already in place," says de Lespinois, who is developing a 3D HDTV series based on author Dana Stabenow's popular Kate Shugak mystery novels. "Everyone is prepared."

On the heels of "Avatar" and other 3D boxoffice hits, there is an unusual singularity of focus at this year's Consumer Electronics Show: How best to bring 3D from the movie theater to the home theater.

"It's going to be everywhere," says David Wertheimer, CEO and executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center at USC. "You'll see it in computers, gaming platforms, a large number of TV, Blu-ray players."

And Hollywood will be watching closely. Gone is the skepticism that initially greeted the idea that digital 3D films would catch on with moviegoers. Now the widespread belief is that viewer-friendly 3D in the home will be a hit. The question is when.

"Between 120 million and 150 million consumers in the U.S. looked at 3D in the theaters and voted with their feet," says Panasonic America chief technology officer Eisuke Tsuyazaki. "The expectation has grown to build a solution in the living room."

Equipment manufacturers have been working overtime to make that a reality. Standards for 3D Blu-ray content were announced last month. Combined with an established HDMI spec that enables TVs to be connected to devices like Blu-ray players, 3D in the home is already a reality.

"There is economic benefit for everyone," Tsuyazaki says. "For studios, it's amortizing their product across ancillary markets. For broadcasters, they can charge more for 3D channels. For consumer electronics manufacturers, it's the rejuvenation of the product line."

Savvy producers have already started priming the pump with content that can ultimately play on 3D TV channels. 3Ality, for example, is producing 3D content for broadcast TV, with the first live 3D sports broadcast to consumers last January (the BCS Championship) and what the company says is the first episode of a scripted TV series shot in 3D (NBC's "Chuck").

AEG Network Live, in partnership with Action 3D Prods. and inconcert3D, has committed to producing 150 live 3D concert events in 2010, including a Dave Matthews performance that premiered Dec. 11.

AEG's John Rubey says the company is already in discussions to license the content to U.K. satellite TV operation British Sky Broadcasting, which plans to roll out a 24/7 3D channel in 2010, providing movies, entertainment and sports to 3D-capable TV sets.

U.S. distributors are expected to follow BSkyB's lead. DirecTV is said to be close to announcing a plan to broadcast several 3D channels, though the company has declined comment beyond declaring its interest in 3D.

On the network side, ESPN announced this week its plan to launch a 3D channel in the summer, while Discovery is joining forces with Sony and Imax to launch a 3D network in 2011.

Other networks and channels that seem likely to gravitate to 3D include National Geographic, which was one of the early leaders in offering HD programming, as well as other networks devoted to sports.

Despite a learning curve for cinematographers, other pieces of the 3D production and post puzzle are in place. All the leading post houses have at least some experience offering 3D services for film, making the transition to TV easier.

"We're testing," says Technicolor marketing officer Ahmad Ouri, who notes the company is also working on 3D subtitling tools. "There is a lot of interest among our studio clients."

Heidi Hoffman, director of operations for the 3D@Home Consortium, a trade industry group, says she "won't be surprised if we see a seamless experience" introduced at CES.

Producing enough content to fill potential 3D HDTV channels is clearly on the minds of Hollywood and TV manufacturers.

"In some ways it is similar to the origins of HD," Tsuyazaki says. "The electronics producers and broadcasters need to work together to get it going."

This coalition, many believe, should be similar to the consortium of studios and exhibitors that came together to finance the conversion of theaters to digital cinema.

"Similarly, for 3D, the finger is pointed at the manufacturers of the 3D plasmas and Blu-ray players to actually provide funding or, if not funding, at least support in kind to get original programming made for 3D TV," says producer Barry Clark, a consultant working with Evergreen Films on the development of 3D content.

In addition to AEG Network Live, a few others have already made alliances. Panasonic launched a global advertising campaign tied to Fox's "Avatar" that also promoted Panasonic 3D products. And on the hardware side, RealD last month announced a partnership with Sony to provide its stereoscopic technology for home theaters and to help create eyewear.

Insight Media president and analyst Chris Chinnock predicts that some of the biggest news at CES 2010 will go beyond the introduction of TV sets.

"You'll see announcements about more trials with set-top boxes, trial 3D broadcasts as well as distribution announcements," he says. "You're going to see hardware and content creation deals left and right."

Although the thousands of people who just bought their first HDTV sets won't be eager to swap it out for a 3D version in the foreseeable future, early adopters might be ready for something new.

"At the rollout of HD, there were 1 million-2 million consumers who would pay any amount to buy an HD TV," Clark says.

He foresees a three- to five-year 3D HDTV rollout period, beginning at year's end, when 3D HDTV sets first go on sale. Increased adoption "should create a sufficient amount of manufacturing so that prices will come down," Clark says.
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