Manufacturers Meet ESPN’s 3D Channel With Excitement but Business as Usual

The announcement of ESPN 3D, a new network coming in June, brought a great deal of buzz to the manufacturer spectrum this week, but no one is doubling their orders for 3D-ready equipment just yet.

“I think it’s a great start,” says Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and chairman of HDNet. “Every new technology has to start somewhere, and [ESPN’s 3D channel] is one of several places I expect to see 3D in 2010.”

Says 3ality Digital Systems CEO Steve Schklair, “We’ve always thought that sports would lead the 3D-to-the-home revolution. This is a big step.”

Larry Thorpe, national marketing executive for Canon Broadcast, is tremendously encouraged by ESPN’s announcement, even though the project is guaranteed only for one year. “They are calling it a viability test,” he says. “Meaning viability of 3D sports as a potential future business and, of course, viability of the many technologies that must be mobilized to make the 3D channel a reality. It certainly signals an important step forward in the evolution of 3D for venue and for home viewing.”

Sony, which is already heavily involved in both live-event 3D productions, including that of the BCS National Championship Game in 2009, and digital cinema 3D production, has taken the stance that 3D has become a production requirement. Alec Shapiro, SVP for sales and marketing for Sony Electronics’ Broadcast and Production Systems Division, says 3D is now necessary for delivering the type of unique viewing experience that consumers expect, so ESPN 3D is not a surprise — and is likely the first of many such networks.

“The launch of ESPN 3D is the latest sign that 3D is a reality,” he says. “We expect more channels and networks to come online soon as well.”

Prodding Product Development
Thorpe is convinced that the ESPN 3D channel will be a significant stimulus to 3D-product development. “Relevant manufacturers are all going to take notice that an important stake has been put in the ground, with respect to live television. We at Canon have surely sat up!”

Canon is engaged in a number of exploratory projects with various entities, according to Thorpe.

“There are many optical issues to be clarified, especially for live sports,” he points out, “and we are eager to partner with serious practitioners to uncover the specific optical requirements.”

Sony will continue to enhance its products to support 3D capabilities and meet the demand for content that ESPN has just created with its channel.

“At CES this week,” Shapiro says, “Sony is announcing 3D-compatible LCD TVs and Blu-ray 3D-capable players, and 3D will also be a big part of our NAB 2010 exhibit.”

Says Schklair, “This will push manufacturers to enter the market sooner. Everybody’s always afraid of being left behind. If there are 3D television sets moving into the consumer market, then every broadcaster is going to want to find a way to feed special programming.”

Cuban’s primary concern with 3D is that the productions are far too labor-intensive, so manufacturers must set to work developing more–cost-effective ways to produce 3D. “The first company to make it easy and far less expensive to produce live events will have a big edge over the current incumbents,” he says.

Ready and Waiting
From Grass Valley’s perspective, it’s business as usual, since the Kalypso HD and Kayenne production switchers, as well as the LDK 8000 cameras, already support 3D and have already been used to produce 3D events.

“We characterize our equipment at 3D-ready, but it really comes down to a business perspective,” explains Scott Murray, senior director of marketing for Grass Valley. “The question on everybody’s mind is, is there a business model to support a 3D production? We don’t know.”

The equally pertinent questions, he adds, are for manufacturers of camera heads and pedestals, since they will need to incorporate 3D rigs that can house two cameras. “I think most manufacturers are in a bit of a wait-and-see what the adoption is going to be like.”

3D Is Not HD
Murray applauds ESPN for taking such a bold step with the network, although he acknowledges that 3D still has its challenges, especially when it comes to standards and production techniques.

“Some people have drawn parallels to high definition, and I say that this is not like high definition,” he says. “When ESPN announced that they were going to do 100 high-definition sporting events, there were already millions of high-definition television sets out in customers’ hands, waiting for somebody to step up to the plate and deliver content to them. There were already standards in place for years supporting high definition.

“We’re not at that point with 3D,” Murray continues. “The television set will eventually evolve into supporting 3D, but right now, you can’t buy very many 3D sets, and they’re very expensive. Plus, people have already made the conversion to high-definition flat panels, so we may not see the uptick on conversion to 3D as quickly as we saw the conversion to high definition.”

From the broadcasters’ perspective, Schklair says, the cost of entry into the 3D market is low, because the on-air signal is ultimately the same bandwidth as a 2D high-definition signal. The barriers to entry lie in whether there is enough content produced, as only a handful of live events were produced in 3D last year, and the creation of standards surrounding the transmission of those productions.

“There are standards for 3D Blu-rays that were just released, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the on-air standards for television follow along similar lines,” Schklair says. “It obviously would make sense if they did. From our side, the content acquisition/origination side, we’re happy to deliver a signal in any standard that’s decided on. We hope that there is a standard soon, because lack of standards will slow the industry.”