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So, you thought it was dead – eh?  Have none of it!  Reminds me of color TV in the 1950’s.  With great fanfare, color was introduced with an approved standard only to fail both technically and commercially.  A technically revised standard was introduced in 1963, and commercial re-marketing began in 1954, again with great fanfare.  Alas, most manufacturers and content providers (except RCA) vacated the color TV market by 1956.  The product category went into virtual eclipse for about seven years – until ABC and CBS started color casting popular programs.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Similarly, 3DTV was rushed to market three years ago - without a coherent marketing strategy, an ill-defined standard, technical deficiencies and content starved.  Of the technical deficiencies, probably the most acute was the need for glasses.  That, in itself, was probably not sufficient to derail 3DTV, as watching 3D with glasses is not a new phenomenon, but coupled with faulted content distribution strategies, serious injury to 3D product mass acceptance occurred.     

Now, the TV industry is marching headlong on two fronts: one into 4K (or whatever you want to call it) with virtually no content support (but great 2D pictures) at ridiculous prices - and the other being Internet TV (OTT or “Smart” TV) with copious content on multiple screens at low prices and markedly low fidelity with questionable quality-of- service.  Wow! Talk about a schizophrenic television marketplace!

It can be argued that, up to a point, most TV viewers are somewhat ambivalent about picture resolution.  With 4K we approach the limit of visual acuity at a significantly less distance than normal viewing positions, but 8K raises the obvious possibility of two 4K visual channels (right/left) allowing for UHDTV full (true 60Hz fps) 3DTV.

The fact remains that 3D is the only element of human visual perception that has not been naturally reproduced without objectionable artifacts and/or cumbersome accessories such as glasses.  Until autostereoscopic (glasses free) display systems are fully developed, 3DTV cannot be successfully mass marketed.

Where do we stand now with commercially viable 3DTV technologically?  My view is that the development of several incipient technologies or technically related activities will converge within the next five years to assure the successful deployment of 3DTV.  The most salient include, but certainly not limited to:

  • Increasing integration of motion picture and television technologies highlighted by the shift of cinema from film-based to digital production distribution and exhibition that is nearly complete.  Clearly, technologies developed for digital cinema are directly applicable to television and vice versa, the most obvious being 4K+ resolution along with 3D production equipment and techniques.
  • The ATSC 3.0 initiative is attempting to define a “clean sheet” television broadcast standard.  ATSC 3.0 is likely to embrace the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) compression standard.  This means fundamental support of a 4:4:4 image sampling ratio and ten bit-per-sample color depth.  3D is expected to be an integral part of the final 3.0 standard instead of an extension.

Because the traditional broadcaster business model is expected to rapidly evolve in light of the spectrum re-allocation plans to support wireless IP services, the future role of ATSC itself is somewhat questionable.  Nonetheless, work is forging ahead by several organizations such as ITU and SMPTE that have similar objectives.  Their work will hopefully be harmonized with that of ATSC and will likely be applied initially to premium on-demand IP services distributed directly by content providers.

  • Light-Field Camera (LFC) systems calculate the exact position of any image pixel from the angle of the incoming light beam.  As a result image focus and depth-of-field can be artificially manipulated through calculation. This also enables accurate generation of precise single lens/sensor 3D images that can be automatically corrected for unnatural stereo image spacing (depth cues) that causes viewer eye strain.

Such viable LFC motion picture camera development awaits a higher sensor pixel density and significantly greater computational power than now applied to commercial cinema and television imaging.  The fact that comparatively low resolution (two megapixel) static consumer cameras are now available indicates that this technology applied to higher resolution 3D television is within reasonable expectations.

  • The maturation of nanolens technology is probably the most significant avenue to the successful commercialization of high resolution 3DTV in a viable autostereoscopic display system.  This subset of nanotechnology attaches tiny “fly-eye” multi-element lenses to each red, green and blue sub-pixel, thereby allowing a virtually unlimited number of 3D “sweet spots” through the effective viewing angle of the display. 

Early experiments have proven proof-of-concept for nanolens 3D display, but no pull image 3D nanolens array actually has been demonstrated or claimed.  However, the overall nanolens development curve, along with related printing technologies, offers the best possibility of time converging with the other key advanced TV initiatives to deliver true autostereoscopic 3DTV within approximately five years.  Nanolens display development thus becomes the “critical path” for successful commercialization of 3DTV.

In summary, all of the building blocks for the true success of 3DTV are present or under development just like those for television itself 75 years ago, color TV 60 years ago and HDTV 20 years ago.  Everything is in place for history to repeat itself.  In five years 3DTV will be the “big thing” (again).


Posted by Ed Milbourn, October 28, 2013 7:42 AM

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About Ed Milbourn

After graduating from Purdue University with degrees in Electrical Engineering and Industrial Education in 1961 and 1963 respectively, Ed Milbourn joined the RCA Home Entertainment Division in 1963. During his thirty-eight year career with RCA (later GE and Thomson multimedia), Mr. Milbourn held the positions of Field Service Engineer, Manager of Technical Training and Manager of Sales Training. In 1987, he joined Thomson's Product Management group as Manager of Advanced Television Systems Planning, with responsibilities including Digital Television and High Definition Television Product Management. Mr. Milbourn retired from Thomson multimedia in December 2001, and is now a Consumer Electronics Industry consultant.