Sky commits to 3D

BSkyB is to launch a 3D television service. Gerry O'Sullivan, Sky's director of strategic product development, buoyed by the enthusiasm for the pay-TV broadcaster's HDTV service, says Sky could launch 3D "any time in the next two years". A few weeks ago Sky introduced its 3D concept to the press, and Sky tends not to make such announcements without having a clear strategy in place.

Sky's thinking, confirmed at the Jan 28 results presentation, is to start aggressively tapping into the more than 7m UK homes (out of 25m TVHH) which already own some sort of HD set. Sky's CEO Jeremy Darroch announced that prices for HDTV set-top boxes would be slashed from £149 to just £49, and this is Stage One in the expansion scheme in the drive to build on the existing 779,000 users (up 171,000 users in the pre-Christmas quarter) already watching its 31 high-def channels beaming out some 11,000 hours of HDTV programming.

The 3D (more properly described as Stereoscopic TV) scheme put forward by Mr O'Sullivan and his head of product design & innovation, Brian Lenz, needs a suitable HDTV-3D set and a plain vanilla HDTV set-top box - and a pair or two of polarising specs. Importantly, O'Sullivan's team are saying the incremental costs for capturing programming - especially live sport - in 3D are not significant.

By this coming Sunday evening an estimated 150 million 3D specs will have been issued free to US viewers in order to watch 3D ads during breaks in the SuperBowl, using a slightly different technique from ‘InTru3D'. With the matching ColorCode 3-D specs it is claimed that TV audiences will see "superior" 3D on ordinary TV sets. Fox Sports is also aggressively looking at 3D broadcasts.

Sky's near-miracle is in transmitting end-to-end 3D using their existing Sky+ HDTV set-top boxes, within standard set-top box Electronic Programming Guide, and middleware, and a very acceptable total 18 Mb/s of satellite capacity (9Mb/s per image) into an ‘off-the-shelf' 3D receiver (Hyundai's Xpol, a 46" stereoscopic 1920 x 1080p unit that uses polarizing filter technology) which delivers 1920 x 540 pixels per eye when in 3D mode.

Brian Lenz, BSkyB's head of product design & innovation, explains how: "We wanted to see what we could do with our own content, transmit it and capture it to the screen with the minimum impact on the complete chain. For us the biggest worry was the transmission infrastructure and our huge number of legacy set-top boxes." Lens explained that replacing either of these elements might have placed any plans for 3D well into the long grass.

"Customers can understand the need to replace their TV sets, especially if the added value is compelling enough." Lens admits that 3D set prices still have to fall to affordable levels, but is confident that - as with HDTV sets - this will happen. "We are concentrating on consumer-ready TVs, and by using a standard HD transmission channel, the sort we would use for high-end sport, and fitting two images into that channel."

Lenz admitted that the ‘when will it become a reality' question is an easy one to answer. He suggested that TV is all about programming, but Sky started transmitting HDTV services when there was a latent build up in the market of flat-panel HD Ready sets. "I don't think you are talking of turning a whole schedule into 3D. It's more likely to be special sport, movies of course and shows like our Gladiator. It may be that we will create more ‘appointments to view' when the whole family can sit and watch a special event, or a movie in 3D."