The Evolution of 3-D Television Standards

By | January 1, 2011 | Broadcasting, Feature

The evolution of 3-D imaging had advanced at a glacial pace when compared to other video technologies. From time to time since its development, 3-D imaging has bubbled up to the surface, capturing the imagination of the public. 3-D movies made brief splashes in the 1950s and again in the 1980s but they ultimately were treated as novelties by the general public and quickly retreated from center stage; but the concurrent development of high speed digital broadcast mediums, flat screen televisions, digital movie theaters and powerful gaming consoles have created the primordial soup for 3-D television to take the next big step in its evolution.

But while the elements surrounding the evolution of 3-D television look promising, will the development of standards, or the lack thereof, accelerate or slow down the widespread acceptance of this technology? Has the industry learned lessons from previous standards battles and are various groups more inclined to work together than during previous technology developments. 


The cinematic industry appears to be ready to fully embrace 3-D, from big budget movies to mainstream television. There are four basic links in the 3-D chain, each with their own unique set of requirements and which must all connect or else 3-D content will never become widespread. Production, post-production, distribution and consumer electronics must all be synchronized, making sure the standards in one area meshes seamlessly with the others in the chain.

There are a number of groups around the globe which are actively plotting different 3-D standards, including: the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and the Society of Cable Telecommunication and Engineers (SCTE). Each of the groups includes large numbers of industry representatives. For example, the Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) Project is an industry-led consortium of more than 250 broadcasters, manufacturers, network operators, software developers, regulatory bodies and others in over 35 countries committed to designing open interoperable standards for the global delivery of digital media services. As DVB’s name suggests, these include broadcasting. Services using DVB standards are available on every continent with more than 500 million DVB receivers deployed.

While each group focuses on their area of prime concern, many companies are active in multiple standards groups to enhance cross-pollination of ideas. Further, most of the standards groups have established formal liaisons with other standards-setting organizations. Intensive work has been going on for the last several years on 3-D standards, and it appears that the cinematic industry is committed to working closely together to avoid contentious battles between proprietary formats. 

Finding Common Ground

“There is a very active effort to ensure that everyone agrees and there are no holes,” says Glenn Oakley, executive vice president, media technology, production and operations, Discovery Communications. “We have learned a lot over the years, and we are taking an industry-focused approach which will bring standardization sooner rather than later. We are working hard to identify common touch points and common areas of interest. An evolution occurs in the television market about every 10 years. First it was color television, then stereo, Dolby, surround sound and high-definition television. Each technological advancement came about a decade apart, and our industry has leaned lessons from each of these developments. The development of 3-D television standards is happening with greater speed and greater collaboration.”

David Wood is the chair of the DVB Commercial Module for 3-D TV and also is active in several other standard-setting organizations. Regarding how common standards will help accelerate the launch of 3-D television, Wood says: “Common standards provide one of the keys to commercial success — stability for the industry and the consumer. They also provide another key — open markets for equipment manufacturers, and set makers can compete on price and features, which is very much in the public interest. They are competition enabling. Common standards also provide for competition on content.

There is a very active effort to ensure that everyone agrees and there are no holes. We have learned a lot over the years, and we are taking an industry-focused approach which will bring standardization sooner rather than later.
—Glenn Oakley, Discovery Communications.


When queried if there were steps being taken to streamline the standard setting process, Wood says: “Yes, very much so. The first into bat was the ITU-R (International Telecommunications Union’s Radiocommunication Sector), who agreed in 2009 on a framework for 3-D TV standards which is now widely used. The framework envisaged three generations of 3-DTV. The first, that is technically possible now, is to provide left- and right-eye images. The second generation, for which we will need to wait some years, is a multi-view system, where multiple image views are provided, and viewing is done without glasses (auto-stereoscopic). The third generation would allow more or less continuously changing views with head movement by recording an object wave or an approximation of it. I guess we may have to wait 20 years or so for that.

Within the first ITU Generation, there are a number of levels, says Wood. “The bottom level, Level 1, is our old friend the color anaglyph, which uses glasses with complementary color lenses and a normal HDTV. This is used occasionally for broadcasting but is not something we need a new standard for, because it works with a normal TV channel,” he says.

Level 2 provides higher quality 3-D images but requires more from the broadcast sector and the viewer,” says Wood. The viewer “has to buy a new display but keeps his/her existing set-top box. It needs a new standard which creates a signal which looks to the set-top box like an HDTV signal but actually includes both left and right images using a spatial multiplex. It was this level that we first took up in the DVB project in 2010, though we call it Phase 1 3-DTV there. Happily, we are well down the line to a common standard here which we hope will be used throughout the world. This is called the frame compatible format.” Details of the requirements are on the DVB Web site, With the ITU 3-D TV levels above the frame compatible format, the users also can use a new set-top box. “We are starting on the specification for this in the DVB project now. There are a lot of technical choices here, so it’s going to be more difficult. I hope we will get there. One of the several choices is to use the Blu-ray 3-D format. This could provide higher picture quality and other features,” Wood says.

The SMPTE is developing the file formats that will be need for 3-D production and contribution, and the ISO/IEC JTC1 MPEG group is developing the compression technologies. Those systems will be candidates for the DVB Phase 2 system, Wood says. “The standards situation is proceeding in a pretty orderly fashion for Phase 1, but if someone could try to standardize display shutter glasses, this would be welcome,” he says.

While industry collaboration on 3-D standards is greater than in the past, there always remains the possibility of a maverick openly bucking the system. It was announced in June that the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television is preparing its own standard which would cover the four links of the 3-D chain. China has both a large market size and the ability to produce its own 3-D televisions, and may throw a kink into the plans for a global 3-D television standard.

When asked about potential holdouts, Wood says: “We are on the threshold of the discussion about the Phase 2 system. There are a lot of alternative routes ahead here, and each has supporters. One option is the Service Compatible Route, with a system that may, for example, follow the pattern of Blu-ray. Another option is to top-up a frame compatible system to full HDTV resolution per channel. A third option is to create what is called tile frame and to broadcast a 1080p50 or 60 signal from which two 720p pictures are taken. Also, at the current time, our Korean colleagues are developing a digital terrestrial 3-D TV system which is based on broadcasting two independent channels for the left and right signals — one MPEG-2 and the other MPEG-4 AVC. At the moment this not an option that has been put forward to the DVB group. Will we find a route through the alternatives to a single Phase 2 standard? You could only say right now that, to use a French proverb, ‘Qui vivra verra.’ In English, ‘He who lives will tell.’” 

Outlook for Satellite Sector

In its 2010 “Forecast of Global Demand for Satellite Services,” Futron, looks at the potential effect of 3-D broadcasting on the satellite communications sector. Brendan Murray, senior market analyst, space and telecom, says: “Content providers, equipment manufacturers and satellite operators are still formulating the best and most efficient means of satellite distribution for 3-D content. 3-D cameras would be capable of capturing the left-eye and right-eye video and pass on both content streams which could be reconstituted to create the 3-D image. However one of these streams can simply serve as the normal 2-D signal to be seen by those without 3-D sets. The 3-D data basically adds 10 percent to 20 percent additional overhead to the existing HD signal. Therefore the 3-D experience does not necessarily require a simulcast scheme, much like SD and HD had during HD’s ascendance on the scene. However, some content providers may eventually want to sell 3-D as a wholly discrete signal with its own camera angles and production methods to truly accentuate the multi-dimensional experience. That would require a separate frequency allocation for a 3-D-simulcast of the content, and while it is still very early in the game to project how these early experimentations in 3-D will go over the long term, Futron is forecasting that the satellite capacity needs to support 3-D versions of HD signals will not be a radical game changer,” he says.

Futron expect the number of 3-D channels to grow throughout the next decade but still remain a tiny slice of the video market for satellite operators. “As of first quarter of 2010, we tabulated 21 3-D channels on various distribution platforms worldwide (none on any pay-DTH platform). By 2019, we expect there to be more than 1,300 3-D signals on various distribution and DTH platforms, which is an impressive channel growth number but still represents less than 5 percent of all video channels distributed via satellite,” he says.

Regarding the future of 3-D television, Oakley says: “Discovery believes that the 3-D format augments content. 3-D is an additional creative tool for producers who tell good stories. We are excited to watch the development of this technology and to be a part of it. We are helping write the future of our industry.”

It is clear that the cinematic industry has learned valuable lessons from previous standards battles and is taking great pains to foster collaboration in the development of 3-D standards. Will everything go smoothly in the future? Likely not, however, the enhanced collaboration between standard setting organizations is sure to bring widespread adoption of 3-D television to the global market sooner rather than later.

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