3D to take center stage at NAB

Products, issues to be hot topics at upcoming convention

Tiger Woods and other star athletes are going 3D.

As the Masters golf tournament gets under way and with World Cup soccer coming in June, 3D is getting a big kick forward just before the start of the National Association of Broadcasters convention, which opens this weekend in Las Vegas.

One major question remains: Will anyone be watching? 3D TVs are only now coming to market from the major set-makers, and few are in the hands of consumers. In effect, the initial broadcasts will be more about testing systems and creating consumer demand as they play on showroom floors.

That hasn't stopped major events from getting the high-tech treatment.

This week, the Masters is being shown in 3D for the first time via cable, and the broadcast is streaming in stereo to 3D-ready laptops and other mobile devices.

On Thursday, soccer's international governing body FIFA and Sony provided new details about the most ambitious 3D broadcast project to date, announcing its schedule for 25 World Cup games in South Africa that will be broadcast in 3D to a global audience on pioneer channels including ESPN-3D in the U.S., which launches on the soccer tournament's opening day, and on Sogecable in Spain.

Eight matches will be fed live to 3D digital cinemas and other public venues worldwide; Switzerland-based Aruna Media will manage rights for venues in 26 countries. Meanwhile, 3D promotional trailers will be shown on Sony 3D Bravia TVs in about 4,000 Sony-affiliated retail stores worldwide.

The World Cup's 3D coverage will include the opening game, South Africa vs. Mexico, on June 11 and the final July 11. During the tournament, 3D filming will occur at five of the tournament's 10 stadiums: Soccer City and Ellis Park in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

The Consumer Electronics Assn. predicts that 1.1 million 3D TVs will be sold in the U.S. this year, though some in the consumer-electronics market, including Peter Fannon, vp corporate affairs at Panasonic, believes that figure "understates the market."

"There are roughly 112 million U.S. TV households, and one-third don't have digital TVs, so they are still effectively in the market for a new TV in the coming years," he said. "Another third bought digital TVs more than six or seven years ago. The typical turnover is seven years."

In the meantime, several other 3D-related technical and business issues will be center stage during the NAB Show.

Broadcast standards for 3D TV will continue to be explored, along with efforts to standardize glasses.

"Eyewear from one TV doesn't necessarily work with other TVs," Fannon said, pointing out that with a standard, consumers could bring their glasses to a neighbor's house and view 3D on different TV brands. "We want to be sure the maximum number of people can see the content."

Fannon chairs a Consumer Electronics Assn. research group involved in several 3D initiatives, including one that investigates vision and health issues surrounding 3D viewing.

CEA and other groups are beginning to encourage research in this area.

"We owe it to the public to research physical effects," said David Wood, deputy director at the European Broadcast Union's Technical Group, speaking during a recent conference. "Is half a dozen people working on this enough for a billion-dollar industry? There should be more research; what we have is anecdotes. I think we should add a word of caution until we know the scientific evidence."

The debate over the 3D conversion of Warner Bros.' "Clash of the Titans" is already provoking discussion about the quality of 3D entertainment.

"I think the quality issue is a big one," industry consultant Michael Karagosian said. "I think it is really important that you can't get away with junk. It is time to do it right."

At NAB, new 3D production technology and techniques will be presented by startups and established manufacturers including Sony and Panasonic. Tools will be aimed at improving quality as well as keeping 3D production from being cost-prohibitive.

"There is some trepidation about getting 3D done," said Rob Willox, director of Sony Broadcast's content-creation unit. "We've been fielding a lot of questions. A lot will be answered at NAB.

"Doing this less expensively is a big issue," he added. "We need to create a lower-cost workflow relatively quickly."

NAB also will generate talk about "autostereo," or 3D without glasses. But some, including Ethan Schur, chief marketing officer at 3D provider TDVision, suggested: "For television, it's more than a decade away. For mobile, within the year."

Master Image, for instance, will demonstrate a Hitachi WOOO mobile phone with an autostereo display. The phone, which incorporates Master Image technology, launched several months ago in Japan, and 300,000 already have been sold. The company will be in negotiations with other mobile firms at NAB and suggested that autostereo handsets could be available in the U.S. by year's end.