Sky trials 3D broadcasts at the O2

Friday, November 27 2009, 12:50 GMT

By Andrew Laughlin,

As confirmed in July, Sky is launching a dedicated 3D channel next year to build on the growing consumer demand for high definition TV. So DS headed to the ATP Tennis Finals at the O2 arena where Sky is running trial 3D broadcasts to see what viewers can expect from the service.

When discussing its 3D plans, Sky talks in terms of delivering a "best seat in the house" experience for viewers. Prior to the tennis event, the firm recently ran 3D trials at four Premier League reserve matches and at the Saracens versus South Africa rugby clash at Wembley.

A chief benefit for Sky customers is that the 3D channel will broadcast over existing Sky HD boxes, requiring only the purchase of a new 3D-ready TV set (although, its still unclear how much they will cost).

Using a JVC 3D TV and a Sky HD box, the team demonstrated live 3D broadcasts to assembled media representatives. At the same time, a test transmission was also being run on satellite, which seemed to be going well.

The 3D picture is watched using a pair of black shades rather than the usual two-tone versions. Sky said that the glasses it uses do not need to have polarising lenses as the polarisation process is handled on the screen.

Sky has opted for a very subtle approach to 3D which simply injects greater depth to the picture. Essentially, the service should be viewed as an extension of HD rather than the "things flying over your head" experience as often seen in cinemas.

When the new channel fully launches in mid-2010, Sky plans for it to carry high-profile events and programming - mostly sport and entertainment - rather than a regular broadcast schedule.

Visiting the outside broadcast truck nestled under the outer skin of the O2, Sky showed how it is handling wide-angle shots by using two independent cameras placed close together which produce two images to be overlayed for the 3D effect. Close-ups are handled using 'mirrored' single-lens cameras, which 'drop back' the image slightly to add depth.

'Convergence' specialists are currently being used to ensure that the image depth for 3D pictures never becomes so great that it induces a feeling of sickness in the viewer.

Another issue for the production team is that two independent cameras for wide-angle shots don't hold a fixed central point for zooming, and so that requires constant correction.

Trials such as at the O2 are helping Sky to discover which content works for 3D and how that content should be produced. For example, the team found that filming the tennis court from a diagonal angle gives a much greater experience for the viewer compared to the usual straight-on view.

Slower panning shots are also being used by the cameramen, because jerky movements can cause discomfort for the viewer. It's certainly clear, though, that Sky is largely making up the rules as it goes with 3D broadcasts.

When asked about the greater cost of the 3D operation, Sky said that a two-camera set-up is an issue, but any added cost is very "manageable" considering the potential of the service.

Sky believes that the technology is already in place for 3D broadcasts to start almost immediatetely, but it intends to take a "crawl first" approach to handle the launch effectively.

The firm accepted that 3D TV will "not be for everybody" compared to the near-universal appeal of HD. However, the service certainly appears to work for Sky as an extra layer to the investment it has already made in HD infrastructure.

Along with being a good marketing tool, there is also a pride factor for the firm in not only leading the UK but also largely the world in developing 3D broadcast technology.