SES World Skies’ 3D Ecosystem Aims To Answer Pressing Questions

While it is seemingly impossible to find an exhibitor at the NAB Show without 3D plans, few have addressed the bigger picture, the infrastructure that will carry this new content. In hopes of promoting collaboration among all the different stages of the 3DTV supply chain, SES World Skies has organized a series of extensive tests aimed at accelerating the delivery of 3DTV.

“You need to find out what you don’t know before you can start learning the best process,” says SVP of Media Services Bryan McGuirk. “This is basically uncharted territory, because no one has done full end-to-end testing of this entire food chain on a rigorous basis. A lot of the tests we’re about to embark on will create a brand-new knowledge for the industry.”

Toward a 3D Strategy
The tests, which will begin at the end of April, bring together a broad range of partners in hopes of creating an end-to-end 3D strategy. While SES has not revealed the specific partners, it does confirm that participants include programmers/content creators (including at least one major sports network), TV-set manufacturers, 3D-glasses suppliers, encoder/decoder manufacturers, industry trade groups, cable operators, and satellite providers.

“For every piece of the value chain, we have participation at some level from an entity in that field,” says Steve Corda, VP of market development, North America. “Each of the individual players has been looking at only their own piece of the puzzle and how to optimize that. Now they can start up a dialogue and begin to understand all the other pieces.

Primary Testing Ground
SES’s teleports in New Jersey and Virginia will serve as the distribution backbone for what it refers to as the “ecosystem” for these tests. The ecosystem is intended to serve as a primary testing ground to determine the best practices and formats for 3D transmission.

“There’s lot of different formats, and each broadcaster or programmer has a different way in which they send their video over satellite and cable systems. That creates a lot of variables,” says McGuirk. “We really need to understand what the correct configurations are in terms of compression: what happens when you convert MPEG-4 to MPEG-2 for 3D? What about data rates? Do we use 720p60 or 1080i60 or 1080p24? Side-by-side or over-under? We need to define the best combinations that are going to create the best experience.”

Deliver Over Current Infrastructure
The immediate goal is to optimize delivery over the current infrastructure. The majority of set-top boxes are currently not capable of receiving uncompressed 3D, so broadcasters must transmit the 3D feed in a frame-compatible format. The frame-compatible 3D format carries separate left and right video signals within the video frame used to convey a conventional 2D HD signal, squeezing them vertically (top-to-bottom) or horizontally (side-by-side) to fit within the space of one image.

“I think there’s been a large number of hasty assumptions made,” says CTO Alan Young, a member of the 3D at Home consortium. “We need to do frame-compatible 3D because then we can reuse the existing infrastructure. Frame-compatibility is one necessary step to reuse the existing structure, but it does not necessarily mean that it’s going to work seamlessly. No one really has any experience with this. We’re all learning.

Transmission of the 3D Feed
Much of the focus at NAB this year has centered on 3D production, but SES believes that the transmission of the 3D feed may prove to be even more complicated than the production itself.

“One of the assumptions that I had about 3D was that, once you got the production sorted out, you were home free. That’s absolutely not the case,” says Young. “There are several things that you can do to a beautifully aligned frame-compatible signal — like over-compressing it — that can take a perfectly good 3D production and still give people nausea. That’s what we designed the first set of tests around. How much can you compress a signal? How critical is the end resolution? What is the best format for transmitting this?”

The ecosystem will test everything from differing formats to bitrates and new 3D technologies. The hope is that the findings from these trials will then be implemented on a large scale for 3D transmission.

“We feel like we only have one shot at this,” says Corda. “If it isn’t a good experience, then [the audience] is going to abandon it. There’s so much buildup and so much consumer interest that they’re going to have very high expectations. It’s our game to win here if we can pull it all together.”