Spectacle and value of 3D TV in UK pubs and beyond

[From The Daily Mail]

fml-42inch_football high res.jpg

The 3D TV? It’s quite a spectacle, but how do they work – and are they worth the £1,000 price tag?

By Robert Hardman
Last updated at 10:28 AM on 18th January 2010

You’re walking past a pub and a mighty roar erupts. A crucial goal has obviously gone in, so you pop your head inside to catch the replay on television.

But it’s not the sporting action that catches your eye. You suddenly wonder if you have wandered into a bad dream. The entire pub appears to be full of sun-worshippers and Bono clones.

Just like the Irish singer, everyone is wearing clunky, dark-tinted glasses, even though it’s night-time and we are indoors.

Without the glasses, however, no one would be able to see the screen. It would be a blur. Stick on your magic Bono shades and everything changes in an instant.

You are suddenly transported to a virtual reality pitchside seat. Along with the entire pub, you duck instinctively as the ball comes flying out of the screen. You scoff at the stupidity of the referee for failing to spot a flagrant breach of the offside rule, which is crystal clear through these all-seeing lenses.

After a while, you may feel slightly queasy. Or you may be bowled over. Either way, we are told, this is the future of television. So get used to it.

We do not have to wait long before this bizarre apparition is a reality. In fact, it’s due to start within a matter of months. And shortly after it takes off in our pubs, it will start happening in our homes.

But is Britain ready for three-dimensional television? Are entire families going to sit down together in goggles? And what happens to the 7 per cent of the population – including our one-eyed Prime Minister – for whom 3D simply doesn’t work?

Much as it may irk all those people who have just spent a small fortune buying a swanky new high-definition television screen in the January sales, they are already behind the times.

The big electrical brands are about to unveil a new generation of 3D televisions starting at around £1,000 (including spectacles). And the world’s broadcasters are gearing up to supply these new screens with wondrous, eye-popping footage quite unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Last week, it was announced that next month’s England v Wales Six Nations rugby union international at Twickenham will be the first live 3D sporting event in Europe. It will be broadcast to cinemas all over the country, where thousands of fans will follow the action through special 3D glasses.

But this is just a taster. Within the next few months, Sky will launch Europe’s first 3D channel – possibly in time for May’s Champions League final.

To begin with, the channel will be available only in pubs and clubs, which will be the first to take delivery of these expensive new screens. Soon after that, however, manufacturers such as Panasonic and JVC will start unveiling a new generation of 3D-ready televisions for the home.

A few years from now, perhaps, people will wonder how on earth we spent all those years glued to our quaint little two-dimensional screens, much as today’s younger generations find it extraordinary that whole families would once dress up and gather round the wireless.

Broadcasters are calling 3D the biggest revolution in television since the advent of colour. So, for the millions who spend their lives glued to the small screen, this is, therefore, very big news indeed. But does it live up to the hype? Is it really that different from watching an HD image on the latest plasma screen?

After all, the film industry was making 3D movies 50 years ago and they never really took off. Maybe it was the sheer naffness of having to wear red-and-green eyeshades.

Maybe it was the fact that some people were left with headaches or nausea. When Jaws 3 appeared in 3D in 1983, people were more appalled by the dismal plot and tacky special effects than the sight of a great white shark biting chunks out of the cast. The 3D genre seemed to be over.

Now, a new generation of scientists have developed an entirely different sort of 3D image for the digital era. The basic principle is the same as ever – you film the same thing from two angles and then merge the two images to create depth – but it is an entirely different experience.

Down at Sky’s West London headquarters, I view some of the work in progress. The boffins have been experimenting with everything from boxing to ballet via a new breed of 3D camera with two lenses and one operator.

Without special 3D glasses, I can see only a fuzzy picture on the screen. Put them on and the result is a bewildering sense of depth. It’s like watching a computer game featuring real people.

I watch a clip of a Champions League game at Liverpool where a few experimental 3D cameras had been scattered around the ground. More impressive than the play in the foreground is the action in the background.

When the camera pans into the crowd, you really do feel as if there is a stadium full of people receding into the distance. The clarity is astonishing. In future, it will be a seriously moronic hooligan who attempts to cause any trouble when 3D cameras are in the stadium. You can almost smell the pie being scoffed by the fat bloke in Row Z.

When I watch Usain Bolt breaking yet another running record in Manchester, the striking thing is not so much Bolt’s speed, but the ticker tape which seems to be about to land on my head.

And when the ball starts bouncing towards the camera during footage from November’s Saracens v South Africa game, I instinctively want to reach out and stop it hitting me in the face. There could be chaotic scenes in the cinemas next month when over- excited England fans start leaping out of their seats to join in the line-outs.

Needless to say, none of this comes cheap. Darren Long, Sky Sports’ director of operations, explains that 3D coverage of a typical Premier League football match will require an entire extra set of cameras, cameramen and even commentators in addition to the full team needed for regular two-dimensional coverage.

Every cameraman will have to learn a new, gentler technique when following the ball. ‘You actually need fewer cameras in 3D, but they need to be closer to the action, and the picture will be so different that you will have to have a different set of commentators talking about it.’

While sport will drive this new technology in the early days, the idea is that 3D will eventually extend to everything.

‘I’m not sure there’d be much point filming traffic reports in 3D, but, in the end, anything visual is going to be improved,’ says Sky’s director of product design, the aptly-named Brian Lenz.

He admits that some events do not lend themselves to 3D just yet, particularly if they involve the cameraman running around or getting wet.

The new ‘stereo’ cameras are much heavier than the existing kit. And if a drop of rain lands on one lens but not the other, the result is a hideously distorted image. On the other hand, all those wildlife documentaries might just be about to get even better.

As someone who has yet to buy a plasma screen and still watches a big fat box in the corner of the room, I feel positively Stone Age looking at all this. But isn’t it a bit hard on everyone who has just swallowed the hype and bought a new HD television?

‘That’s the way technology goes. The first iPhone was obsolete as soon as you bought it,’ says Brian Lenz. He points out that every existing HD set-top box is ready to receive 3D images. It’s just the television itself which cannot.

And a new 3D model is going to cost a four-figure sum – which means that the only buyers are likely to be footballers who want to watch their own fancy footwork in three dimensions, and outgoing MPs on a farewell spending spree.

As with all new technology, the prices will tumble in due course. Viewers will have a choice between two types of 3D system known as ‘active’ and ‘passive’, which show images in different ways.

An ‘active’ television will cost less, but will require special ‘shutter’ glasses. The basic idea is that the TV displays the programme in a series of rapidly alternating frames – left eye, right eye, left eye, right eye – changing at such speed that the viewer cannot even detect it is happening.

To watch in 3D, the viewer wears a pair of shutter glasses, powered by a small battery, which block out one eye or the other on alternate frames at the same high speed, synchronising with the image being displayed on TV via a wireless connection to the set. The brain is thus fooled into creating a 3D image in the mind’s eye.

The technology works well. But the trouble is, the glasses cost around £50 a pair. So if you sit on them or the dog chews them or you invite lots of friends round to watch a game, it is going to be very expensive. And how often will those batteries need replacing?

The passive technology works differently. This relies on a special polarising filter on the TV set to split the image into its left eye/right eye components. The split picture is then viewed using a simple pair of polarising glasses – similar to the ones handed out in modern 3D cinemas – to create the 3D image.

Though these glasses cost as little as 65p a pair, the ‘passive TVs’ are expected to be up to 15 per cent more expensive than the active versions – and there are reports that the quality of the picture is not so good.

Both systems are much kinder on the eye than the old red-and-green eyeshades of yesteryear, which means that viewers are less likely to get headaches or feel nauseous.

As for the 7 per cent of Britons who are unable to appreciate depth of vision (usually those who have sustained an injury or illness which has damaged one or both of their eyes), they can save themselves the whole bother of putting on these silly glasses and cheerfully continue watching in good old 2D for a fraction of the price.

So is this all a gimmick? Will the public buy it? The glasses will put some people off, no doubt. Over time, I suspect that it will become an occasional pleasure rather than a routine.

But Brian Lenz has no doubt that technology will eventually iron out any difficulties: ‘In ten years’ time, I dare say we will be watching 3D without any glasses at all,’ he says. ‘The science is improving all the time.’

Indeed, the boffins are already perfecting new techniques so that old two-dimensional material can be reconfigured in the new 3D format. In time, we may all be able to see the Coronation, the 1966 World Cup final, or The Sound Of Music through our new Bono glasses.

Some things, however, are beyond all help. Whatever they do to Jaws 3, a turkey will always be a turkey.

ISPR Presence News

Search ISPR Presence News: