Life is good at BSkyB. The company more or less owns sport on UK screens, it's by far and away the biggest HD program provider and now, at some mystery point of 2010, it looks like it'll be way out in front with 3D too. Sky's director of product design and development and the man in charge of the 3D project, Brain Lenz, told Pocket-lint how the company has done it again.
"Our delivery focuses on re-using the HD infrastructure that's already there. Broadcasters are still paying for HD and to use new infrastructure doesn't make sense. This way, the business model starts to become viable whereas adding new boxes just makes the whole operation much more expensive. That means our investment can all be about content instead," and that's exactly what the company is waiting for before next year's launch.
According to Lenz there is likely to be a specific 3D channel although with some degree of an events and pay-per-view structure in other areas as well.
"We're not going to have a Sky Sports 3D, a Sky Movies 3D and a Sky One 3D. We've been waiting for production techniques as well as-content too. We want to make sure we can be running 3D week-in-week out with sports and live events rather than just movies."
Sky recently demonstrated a range of 3D recordings at the International Broadcasters Convention in Holland including a performance of the English National Ballet, a Keane concert and clips from the recent series of Gladiators filmed in its entirety in 3D but the real angle for Sky, as always, seems to be with sport. Unlike the BBC, Sky's rubgy union tests were deemed a success. The game is the same, the difference is how it's done.
"We think you need to push different positions with 3D. High shots are not as good but mid shots are great. It's like you're sitting about 20 rows back in the stadium."
"The BBC only used three or four cameras when they shot the Six Nations. We would use 20-25 at a similar event. The director always wants more cameras but, ideally, I think we can cover it with 8-12 for 3D."
It's not just the techniques that have to be re-thought though. There's the nuts and bolts of equipment and how the whole operation works but, fortunately for Sky, once again it's not quite all virgin territory.
"Obviously, we had to invest in rigs, cameras, but we have the right tools in the trucks. You can reuse a lot of the HD equipment, so it's not like everyone has to learn completely new stuff. We still have moments of 'oops, well, er, we've never thought about that before' but that's really a question of smoothing that stuff out before we try it live because when you're live, well, you're live, that's it."
But even beyond the shoot, it's not all plain sailing in post-production either. There are even seemingly trivial questions about how, and where in the depth, to add a graphic to live action.
"To begin with it's probably a case of putting one right out in front of the other to make sure there's no discontinuity," Lenz suggests, "but we'll begin to be more adaptive, rolling or tracking with the action as we understand it all better. We also need to work out how we can mix the footage with 2D as well. We've tested with cutting between the two and it works fine. Eventually though it would stick out as being really flat."
"What's also been interesting for us is the possibilities of what we have done. We've not found one genre yet that you can't do with 3D. It's the best seat in the house and works wonderfully for arts and studio shows, evening comedy, plays, kids, fantasy worlds. Where there is a barrier of suspending disbelief, 3D will help break that."
It didn't seem that Lenz was that keen to press on with news or kitchen sink drama tests in 3D, but there was certainly nothing ruled out. In terms of how the broadcasts will come to the home, Sky has decided to send the two pictures side by side in the Full HD format sharing the 1080 x 1920 resolution. That means that, technically, 3D will not be in 1080p but 1080i, but Lenz was quick to dismiss the issue:
"It's about how good is the image. You can get into a pixel count argument if you want but the point is that the experience is compelling and people say so every single time. It's not a full 1080p to each eye, no. The only way would be with a higher frame rate or to increase the resolution of the picture. Maybe it's something for the long term but not right now. We'd need much more bandwidth."
The issue, of course, also explains why it's only Sky HD customers that won't have to upgrade their set-top boxes. You could do it side by side in standard definition but once the 576 rows of pixels have been split into two, the picture would look rather poor.
Sky's 3D broadcast standard is not even that hard for a normal TV as far as processing power goes. Users would, of course, require a new 3D ready set but it doesn't matter which kind.
"We're agnostic as to whether the TVs use a passive or active solution so long as the TV can do the job. Most sets already handle multiple inputs and the processing of the 3D streams is really a very similar task to upscaling a 720p picture to one 1080p."
Not even the size of the screen seems to be a huge problem either.
"The fact is that bigger is always better but there's size versus how far away you stand as well. Our tests still looked good from 15m away even on 40-50" screens. It's like looking through a window at it. It's not as immersive but the effect holds."
Sky is currently in one third of all UK homes with a total of 4% receiving Sky+HD. The difference is that, it's a major success for a paid-for model like Sky. As an advert-funded broadcaster you'd need far higher penetration for success and that's perhaps the biggest factor of why introducing 3D TV is much easier for Sky. Although reluctant to give hard figures, the general plan of attack read "2010 is the emergence, 2011 the early take up and 2012 is when it really should be moving".
Of course, the largest barrier with 3D TV, as far as the public is concerned, is whether they want to wear the glasses at home or not. We've asked a lot of people this question throughout our 3D TV week and probably the best answer of all came from Lenz.
"People have already proved they're willing to wear the glasses in public and paying a premium for the experience too. Quality seems to be the factor now rather than novelty. The question is, what content can we give to make people justified in putting the glasses on? Besides, 3D is not going to be part of our Sunday evening schedule. The goal, certainly initially, is for things you really want to watch. It helps to keep our programming sharp too."
Naturally, he refused to answer the question of exactly when in 2010 Sky would be launching the 3D service but, by the end of the interview, it dawned on us that the majority of Lenz's examples and references had been about sport. When we suggested that it had to be that the opening of the 2010/11 Premier League season that Sky was aiming for, there was a lot laughter. A great deal of laughter. Big, hearty laughter. And then finally, "no comment." Make of that what you will.
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