3D TVs - A new perspective
The BBC just announced its 3D coverage of the 2012 Olympics - but will you have the right tech to watch it?
In industry circles, 2010 was 'The Year of 3D' - you could hardly move at trade shows for journalists wearing outsized glasses. It was like being at a 'Joe 90' convention! But 2011 was really the year the technology really began to sell in the high street. According to Jim Bottoms at Futuresource, over 200,000 sets are now being used in the UK and 2 million across Europe.
3D technology has been around longer than you might imagine. It's been 'the next big thing' since as far back as 1844, when David Brewster showed off his 3D photographic pictures. The first audience to pay to see a 3D film donned their glasses for The Power of Love, on 27 September, 1922. Stereoscopic 3D television was hard on its heels, demonstrated for the first time in 1928, by John Logie Baird himself.
Andy Quested who ran the recent Wimbledon 3D trials for the BBC, says it's not so much difficult to do as expensive. 'You need three times the number of cameras, one for 2D and two for each 3D position.' To create the illusion of depth perception, images first need to be recorded from two perspectives to mimic human eyes. When filming subjects relatively close to the camera – tennis or football for example – this means using a special piece of equipment with two cameras mounted side by side separated by the same distance as a person's pupils. Sometimes you want to capture images in 3D that the human eye would normally see in 2D as they're so far away – clouds for instance. In this case, the two cameras are positioned hundreds of meters apart to give us the illusion of a 3D cloud.
The camera positioning is critical. 'At Wimbledon we didn't always get that right,' admits Andy. 'But when we did, the 3D looked very good. Flare and mirror reflections were an issue too'.
If you saw the finals in 3D and are interested in how much technical learning took place, check out Andy’s blog where he goes into the 'hows', 'whys' and 'oh dears' of the experience.
Alison Hunter, who tours with the BBC Blue Room explaining technology, says one of the most common misconceptions is that 3DTV sets only deliver 3D pictures - 'Many people don't realize 3D is an option on the remote'.
And that's just the start - sometimes there's even confusion over the choice of systems.
If you're about to invest in a new TV, you need to decide how you want to watch the 3D effect – with or without glasses, and then even which type of glasses!
Those two offset images coming from the two cameras – which give that fringing or doubling effect when you look at a 3D set without special glasses – need to be filtered separately to the left and right eye. This can either be done within the set by splitting the images directionally into the viewers’ eyes, or outside the set, by getting the viewer to wear glasses.
At the moment the two most common types of glasses are the lightweight 'passive' polarised lenses and the 'active' shutter lenses.
Many people find the fit and feel of passive glasses better, but prefer the picture quality of the more expensive active-shutter glasses. It's worth asking whether you'll need to dim lights, close curtains and sit at a particular distance to get the best out of the 3D experience. Also, as Andy Quested points out, the more you pay for the glasses, active or passive, the better the experience will be.
Soon, you'll also be able to opt for 'auto-stereoscopic' or no-glasses 3D. But the convenience of not wearing glasses usually has to be balanced against the need to sit in 'sweet' viewing positions, not always practical in a family sitting room, though eye-tracking technology can improve on this problem. These sets are just coming into the market, so expect a very high price tag for the luxury of 3D with no specs.
Although 3D content is growing and some, like Sky, are investing heavily - re-cabling Premiership football grounds and commissioning feature documentaries like The Bachelor King 3D narrated by David Attenborough - others are more cautious.
Producing 3D content is expensive and according to independent technology analyst Ovum, many broadcasters rate production of 3D content and channels as their lowest technology investment priority. Manufacturers are responding to this by running their own 3D channels on internet enabled sets.
3D is an immersive experience. Fine if you're watching a football match, or a must-see movie; you can sit there with your goggles on and the curtains closed. But it doesn't sit well with channel hopping or for the increasing tendency to watch TV whist doing something else on a companion device.
With the 3D button appearing on more and more remotes, the question isn't so much how many of us will have access to 3D as how often we will use it. I suspect 3D will finally have its day when we can enjoy a fantastic 3D experience without glasses from anywhere in the room. And maybe more focus should go into developing integrated cameras, which can shoot in 3D and 2D simultaneously to make production costs more sustainable.
Because we'll only be completely won over when programme makers provide more must-see content. Maybe the Olympics are just the start!
Maggie Philbin has worked in radio and television for 30 years on a wide range of science, medical and technology programmes. She is currently a regular technology reporter on BBC 1's Inside Out.