ATSC Keeps Cautious Eye on 3D TV Initiatives

With ESPN and Discovery publicly embracing 3D-content creation and distribution and DirecTV expected to do as much at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this weekend, it appears that cable and satellite distributors will be primed for 3D. But what about over-the-air broadcasters?

For the time being, any over-the-air broadcaster interested in distributing live 3D content will have to be patient, since there is currently no standard for delivering 3D content over the air. More important, no work is being done at the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) to develop such a standard, which means that live over-the-air 3D is at least two years away.

“Three-dimensional TV is an incredibly exciting area, and there is a lot of [standards-related] work going on around the world, but it’s not our highest priority,” says ATSC President Mark Richer. “Right now, it’s a question of what broadcasters want to do with the bits in their DTV signals as every bit in the 19.39-Mbps signal counts.”

While exhibitors of consumer TV sets will be pushing 3D at CES, the ATSC, Open Mobile Video Coalition, TV stations, and national broadcast networks will be focused on the other big story at CES: delivery of video to mobile devices.

Says Richer, “There is no doubt that delivering content to mobile devices makes sense for broadcasters as there is a long-term need and interest.”

He is not so certain, however, about the long-term need for and interest in 3D. That said, he does see two potential means for broadcasters to get into the 3D game: taking advantage of current ATSC efforts to enable over-the-air broadcast signals to deliver non–real-time content. Such a service could enable delivery of 3D content to both portable devices and video servers connected to TV sets.

“Broadcasters could deliver the 3D content as a file, not as part of their regular broadcast,” he adds. “That will be a very good way to deliver certain kinds of 3D content.”

Any efforts to develop a 3D standard, Richer says, would be done closely with other broadcast-standards organizations around the world. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he explains. “We would want to develop a way to carry 3D and transmit it.”

One big challenge will be ensuring that any future 3D standard is backward-compatible, so that signals can be delivered to the millions of ATSC receivers currently in the marketplace. “We will need to figure out how to take an HDTV signal and add extra information to make it 3D-compatible,” Richer says.

The question will then be this: if a broadcaster spends the additional bits to deliver a 3D signal, is it maximizing the value of those bits? That hinges on one issue: whether consumers actually buy into the concept of 3D TV in the home.

And even the best crystal ball can’t predict whether that will happen.