SPEECH published on 19 Sep 2011

3DTV: future or fashion?

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen; buongiorno signore e signori.  

I’m delighted to be here, but I will confess to you at the outset that I am not the world’s most passionate 3D enthusiast.  

That said, I feel that it’s positive to have some people like me around, to talk to you here today, and to offer some contrasting opinions.   

Yes, I am aware of how many hundreds of millions of dollars were made by the 3D movie ‘Avatar’.  

Yes, I know that the revenue from the small number of 3D movies available in cinemas today now makes up about 20% of all movie revenue.    

And I have heard 3D devotees prophesying that the ‘messiah’ of 3D is coming to TV. They warn that ‘if you are not part of the road roller, you will surely be part of the road’.     

I have even heard it said that in the future all TV will be 3D.

If only life were so simple.  

Personally, I believe that the claim that 3DTV will be the only shape of TV to come is as fanciful as the claim that broadcasting will be rendered obsolete by the Internet in a few years’ time.    

3DTV will be a valuable tool for broadcasters, and an enjoyable feature of some programmes. But it will be an optional complement to conventional broadcasting – not the standard format.    

3DTV will not be the ‘universal’ tool for broadcasters, for three reasons.       

It is not 'for everyone'; it cannot be used 'for every type of programme'; it cannot be used instantly 'by all broadcasters'.    

Furthermore, experience has shown us that its sustained future popularity is not guaranteed.     

First, is it ‘for everyone’?

I confess that I personally suffer some eye discomfort when I watch 3D, and I am surely not the only one.

Research shows that about 5% of the population is simply unable to perceive 3D pictures on television. Their brains cannot ‘fuse together’ the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ images into one. ‘Fusing’ the image requires some unconscious mental gymnastics, which not everyone can do.    

There is a further percentage of the population that can do this, but finds it difficult – at least at first.  I am in this group.   

Then there is a group of viewers, maybe the lucky ones, whose brains can fuse the images easily.    

So, 3D presents an unusual dilemma.  It is not TV where everyone just switches on for some relaxed viewing. Even if you can fuse the images easily, it still requires unconscious mental effort, and it is well known that you need to ration your time in front of the 3DTV – however enjoyable you find it.      

The manufacturers' advice included with 3DTV sets on sale today is to take off the 3D glasses at intervals, and typically after a maximum viewing time of one hour or so.    

This is the reality of 3DTV.      

This is the first point I want to make about 3DTV. It is not something for continuous viewing all day on a TV channel. It is for special occasions. It must be used with care, and most importantly, we must ensure we cause minimal eye discomfort and that the public understands any eventual drawbacks. Public service broadcasters have a mission of ‘universality’ – content that is accessible to the entire nation. So we could, and probably should, make some 3DTV programmes. But it must be just a part of what we do.   

Second, for which types of programmes can it be best used?    

This is the explanation my technical staff in Geneva gives me: When we see the world with our eyes, the 3D effect – objects having ‘volume’ – is most striking when objects are between one and four metres away. This ‘three‐metre window’ is the optimal window of ‘depth perception’.   

When we make 3DTV, we are trying to replicate the experience of human vision.  In simple terms, this means that for the best and most realistic 3DTV effect, the camera must stand less than four metres from the object it is shooting. In addition, the camera will use lenses with about the same ‘angle of view’ as our own human eyes. Think of a boxing match with the camera just outside the ring. This is the kind of scene that will give the best depth effects.  

But at the same time, if we examine what kind of programmes the public say they would most want to watch in 3DTV, we expose a fundamental dilemma.

The kind of 3D programmes viewers will be most attracted to will often be events they would like to attend in person, rather than sit at home watching on television. 

These are occasions such as football matches, pop concerts and other events usually held in large theatres or stadiums. Yet these are the very events where you cannot place a camera within a couple of metres of the action. You can't take a camera onto the football pitch and chase after the players! Yes, you can shoot from the sidelines of a football pitch with telephoto lenses. But, as you may have already seen, when this is done in 3D it creates unnatural looking pictures – the so‐called ‘puppet theatre’ effect.

My intention is not to go into detail, but to say simply that not all programme genres are well suited to 3DTV, and there are limits to the way you can frame shots, and the type of action you can film successfully.

In other words, there are constraints on what you can shoot well in 3DTV, and limitations on what you can achieve in a given programme. It does not lend itself to all types of programmes and all occasions.      

Is 3DTV for all types of broadcasters?   

When we look at the 3DTV services already on the air, it’s clear that almost all of them are provided by Pay TV operators. This is no coincidence.

In Europe there are services from the Sky satellite channels in several countries, from Orange IPTV in France, from DirecTV, and ESPN satellite channels in the United States. There are some trial services in Korea, and a satellite service in Japan. It’s not a huge amount – but it’s something.    

Some public service broadcasters, like the BBC, have done trial broadcasts, but overall the world's public service broadcasters have not been making 3DTV a priority, and this is not surprising.   

A 3DTV programme is actually two HDTV shots, one for each of the Left and Right images.  It makes no sense for a broadcaster to consider 3DTV when it is still in the transition to HDTV. And don’t forget, you can't broadcast 3DTV until you have the means to broadcast HDTV.   

What is more, there is far greater public demand for HD than for 3D; if the public can easily shoot HD‐ quality amateur videos at home, then it is logical that they expect at least the same quality from their broadcasters.

Most public service broadcasters are today in the process of converting to HDTV, and still deciding how to provide HDTV broadcast services. Therefore, most EBU Members are, rightly, focusing on developing their HDTV services before looking seriously at 3DTV. 

Public service broadcasters must be extremely careful and responsible about how they spend the public money entrusted to them, and it would be misleading to argue that launching a 3DTV service is without risks, especially given the chequered history of 3DTV.       

First, we would be unwise to ignore what has happened with 3DTV's past successes and failures.  

If you look back over the decades you find that regularly and cyclically, 3D becomes fashionable for a time, until the public loses interest.  

The cycle began in the 1930s, then repeated itself again in the 1950s, then repeated again in the 1980s. In fact, the first 3DTV on‐air broadcasts were not made in recent years; they were made in 1982 by our Member NDR, in Hamburg, Germany. At the same time, we were already studying 3DTV at the EBU.   

It IS different this time round, because now that we are using digital technology, the images are less likely to cause eye discomfort, and the colours are much better. But there is still the chance that, in spite of all that, the public may tire of it again.   

Time will tell.    

Second, don’t forget that just over the horizon is the development of ‘Ultra High Definition Television’. UHDTV offers an enormously detailed picture. My own impression, when I see it, is that it leaves the viewer with the same or a better sense of involvement in the scene than 3DTV. It’s true that UHDTV will need a great deal in terms of production capability, and a huge amount of spectrum. Realistically it is 10 or 20 years away.     

But, even if it were 20 years away, would it be worthwhile going for 3DTV when there is a real chance of it being ‘overtaken’ by UHDTV?  Wouldn't it be more sensible to wait for, or even accelerate the arrival of UHDTV?

Finally, I remind you that we are on the threshold of the era of ‘hybrid broadcasting’ – the combining of broadcasting and broadband Internet. I know that this is hampered by a large and growing number of different technical standards. But despite this, it could be a real force for change in broadcasting, and it may yet shape our industry in ways that we cannot imagine.     

One of the highest priorities that public service broadcasters must have is to exploit the opportunities of hybrid broadcasting. I am convinced that our survival is more dependent on that than on what we do with 3DTV.    

So, to sum up, I believe that:  

Modern 3DTV is an exciting development that we need to understand. It is something that can add value to certain programmes and enhance viewers' enjoyment. 

We must all learn what is required to make a 3DTV programme in production terms, and make some 3DTV programmes to learn the art of 3DTV production. At the same time, we must also realise that the future of 3DTV is not certain – it may yet fall out of public favour, as it has done before.

The move towards 3DTV for public service broadcasters will be a gradual journey whose progress is influenced by public demand.    

Finally, I would add that just because we cannot launch an array of 3DTV channels and services overnight, we still have an essential role to play as public service broadcasters.   

My staff and those of public service broadcasters have been driving the world towards common 3DTV technical standards. Our business is to act for the public good. We believe that if there are to be 3DTV services, even if we are not operating them, they should be the best that the technology will allow.    

Thank you for your attention; Grazie per la vostra attenzione.