Telefónica is to begin trialling the delivery of 3D video content over IP networks this year. The first trial will take place in Sao Paulo Brazil using an autostereoscopic Philips television that does not require special glasses to view the 3D image. This is done by covering the screen with very thin lenses that diffract light so that the left and right eye see two different images creating the illusion of 3D. According to Telefónica's research and development department, plans to start testing a 3D VOD over IP service in Spain are being considered and tentatively scheduled to begin in 2009. The Brazilian project is centred on corporate applications, but the Spanish trial will assume the form of a consumer proposition. Telefónica plans to take advantage of the recent wave of 3D film-making by offering these movies to its IPTV subscribers on an on-demand basis. Any of Telefónica's 577,000 IPTV subscribers in Spain wishing to view the content will require a 3D capable display and a firmware update on their set-top box.
Although still in a prototype stage Telefónica hopes to utilise 'depth mapping' technology to transmit the 3D content. Distribution of 3D video using such technology would require only a 15% increase in bandwidth over traditional 2D transmission. Depth mapping technology compares favourably with full stereoscopic transmission which requires twice as much bandwidth as 2D video.
The current transition to HD carries some lessons for any future transition to 3D content. The obstacles are almost identical; new displays in the home, increased bandwidth requirements and dedicated content. HD has also proved a confusing proposition for some consumers requiring both a new display and service while not being entirely obvious what is being viewed. Proponents of 3D technology argue that it is a clearer marketing opportunity for consumers to understand. Consumers will have a better idea of what to expect from 3D technology which will likely be a significant aid in the adoption of 3D screens in the home.
Two obstacles to 3D in the home are the issues of glasses and glasses-less technology and the creation of content. Consumers may take a wait-and-see approach to the glasses vs. glasses-less argument hurting the initial uptake of 3D. The problems in providing HD content are likely to recur with the provision of 3D content. HD can be upscaled from SD, and indeed the method is very pervasive throughout broadcasting, 80% of Channel 4 HD content is upscaled for instance. The equivalent for 3D content would be rendering existing library titles into 3D, using techniques such as 'Dimensionalization' from US company In-Three, or for a Philips display a depth map can be added to a 2D image. Whether in the long term this can be done as cost effectively and on the same scale as upscaling to HD is not clear. The driver for 3D content is undoubtedly films as studios begin to future proof by making more and more films in native 3D. From 2009 there will be at least 15-20 major feature films produced in 3D every year.
Telefónica's intentions are important for a variety of reasons. Firstly they may help solve the argument of whether consumers will prefer to view 3D with or without glasses. While Philips' "glasses-less" 3D technology has improved over the last two years, displays that require glasses are still generally accepted to produce a superior image. The Philips display may appeal to the image conscious and will avoid the predicament of not having enough glasses when friends come round to watch a 3D film, but Philips will have to work on reducing the display's EUR 18,000 price tag before anyone can appreciate these benefits.
As the price for 3D displays comes down the argument will start to centre on the infrastructure required to distribute 3D content. There is unlikely to be enough 3D content to merit a dedicated linear channel in the near future, leaving VOD the best option to broadcast 3D in an efficient and affordable way. Telefónica's choice of 'depth mapping' to save on bandwidth is desirable on any platform, but it does highlight the bandwidth restraints of IPTV, which often will reach capacity with heavily compressed HD streams. The SMPTE (and other industry bodies) have recently begun to determine a set of international standards to deliver 3D to the home; which once decided will make 3D to the home a simpler and more likely proposition.
The roll out of 3D technology and its commercial viability is still unclear, but Telefónica's experiment will shed light on some of the above questions as well as marking an important step in the monetising of 3D content well after the cinema screening.