Comcast Brings 3D Masters to The World of Cable

Next month’s ultra-hyped 3D telecast of The Masters golf tournament will be available to even more cable subscribers than originally thought. Comcast will deliver the 3D feed to other major MSOs, including Cox Communications. Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks are also reportedly looking into taking on Comcast’s 3D feed from Augusta National Golf Club.

Comcast will send the 3D feed, which will be produced by ESPN using Sony cameras and switchers, from Augusta, GA, through its Colorado-based Comcast Media Center facility and out to its cable systems and those of the participating MSOs. Comcast has already cleared space for a dedicated 1080i channel that will be used exclusively for The Masters in 3D and will be available to all of Comcast’s markets.

The fact that a major sporting event like The Masters is already being piped into homes of cable subscribers in 3D indicates just how far the prospect of 3D on cable has come in just a few months. With the first available 3D TVs flying off the shelves (the first wave of Panasonic sets sold out in one week) and several major cable outlets announcing plans for 3D channels, it seems that 3D has arrived on cable.

HDMI 1.4a to the Rescue
“Sports [in 3D] is definitely an area where there is a lot to learn, and I think this is a chance for us to get a sense of that and to fine-tune the process,” says one representative from CableLabs, a non-profit cable-television research and development organization. “There’s some real challenges that they’ll have to work out, but I think the experience will be unlike anything we’ve seen before.”

A major step towards the long-term prosperity of 3D TV was the release earlier this month of HDMI 1.4a, which provides the first hint of an official standard for passing 3D signals from the set-top box to the TV.

Currently, the industry uses three formats for transmitting frame-compatible 3D: 720p60 and 1080p24 with the left and right video signals compressed vertically (top to bottom) as well as 1080i compressed horizontally (side by side). Comcast will broadcast The Masters in the latter, side-by-side format.

The HDMI 1.4a specification mandates that all 3D sets be able to decode all three formats. This provides cable operators with a standard to work with on the output side.

3D TV Still Not Automated
However, despite the introduction of HDMI 1.4a, the overall consumer experience is still very much a work in progress. Virtually all of the current HD set-top boxes are capable of delivering 3D, but they are not completely automated to allow users to simply sit down, put on their glasses, and watch TV in 3D.

When The Masters hits the cable systems of Comcast and the other included cable providers April 7-11, 3D-TV owners will have to go through a process to watch the tournament in 3D. When the viewer turns to the dedicated Masters 3D channel, two separate identical images will appear on the screen side-by-side (or top-to-bottom if it was compressed in that format). The 3D button on the TV remote will pull up a menu with icons of side-by-side or top-to-bottom images. The viewer selects the appropriate format (side-by-side in the case of The Masters), and the TV goes into 3D mode. Only then will the 3D feed appear.

According to CableLabs, the hope is to automate this process, which means attaching metadata or tags to the video content to identify what is a 2D signal and what is a 3D signal and what format it is being delivered in. The set-top will then need a software upgrade to enable it to recognize these tags.