Sunday, July 7, 2013

The BBC, In 2D

We don't talk about 3D TV much on this site, because we're technically a site about 3D Film. This week though, serious news broke that might very well have an impact on the future of both the cinematic medium and its televised equivalent. So, we interrupt usual film-based discussion to take a brief look into 3D TV and its - now somewhat perilous - future.

Post-Avatar, it seemed that movie theaters were guaranteed 3D movie-going successes. All eyes (literally) turned towards the home theater industry, to see whether TVs would be able to catch up. In the short-term at least, the holy grail was to get Avatar 3D into living rooms as soon as humanly possible. A deal was struck so that copies of Avatar would be shipped with a particular brand of TV. Other TV manufacturers were stuck hawking Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and a few made-for-Blu efforts.

The thing the TV industry neglected to mention was that you'd only get a couple of 3D glasses with your $3500 telly. And each additional pair of glasses would cost $100. Given that the nuclear-family is usually a home theatre system's target demographic, the limited number of 3D glasses pretty much doomed 3D TV from the outset. Mum and Dad could watch in 3D, while the kids watched blurry outlines. At least, this might be the case until someone eventually forked out for a few extra pairs of glasses on EBay.

The price of 3D glasses on EBay, July 2013

At first, there wasn't much in the way of content for 3D-capable television. Eventually this changed though, and 3D Blu-rays began to be released same day-and-date with their 2D brethren. Prominent 3D Blu-ray content like Prometheus and The Avengers shifted many thousands of units, and broke records for their market share of 'High Def' content vs 'Standard Def' mediums like DVDs offered in the past. If you consume content via Blu-ray, these days it's possible to build a library of a few dozen 3D titles (including a few X-rated titles too...)

Eventually, TV caught up too. ESPN and the BBC began providing programming that had been filmed natively in 3D. Viewers were able to see significant events such as Wimbledon championships, the 2010 FIFA World Cup and even Queen Elizabeth's Christmas message in 3D. ESPN's efforts were particularly noble, in that they offered a dedicated 24/7 3D channel. Sports were the most obvious type of programming to benefit from 3D; flattened 2D images cause issues for home viewers when you're trying to figure out if someone was off-side, or if a goal missed its posts by a few feet. For a time, things looked bright for 3D TV. 2011's Consumer Electronics Show (widely known as 'CES') prominently featured second-generation 3D TVs from major manufacturers, and even demonstrated a possible future of 'glasses-free' 3D. By 2012, there were 55 3D-only channels worldwide.

Just a year later though, 2012's CES big news story was... the absence of 3D TV. Much finger-pointing began. Some blamed the lack of quality content (there was content, but it couldn't stand toe-to-toe with the James Cameron Standard), others blamed glasses-dependent technology, and others blamed... the consumer's unforeseen unwillingness to upgrade their TVs. As the year wore on, it became clear that "3D-capable" was no longer a must-have selling point for a TV, and many manufacturer's marketing departments instead began to tout their TV's Wi-Fi capabilities and built-in web applications. By 2013, perhaps reading the tea leaves of customer desire, the industry considered "3D-capable" to be a mere checklist item; hastily written on the side of boxes, next to "2 HDMI ports" and "Batteries included with remote". 2013's CES featured 4K-quality TVs prominently instead, and paid nary a mention to 3D. 

This week, things really took a turn for the worst. After two years of its 'pilot project', the BBC announced it would wind down its 3D operations until 2016. For the time being, the Queen's next few Yuletide greetings will be back to normal old 2D. The head of the BBC's 3D programming described the viewing experience as "a hassly experience" but also hesitated to "call the whole 3D race." It's hard to say exactly why they've chosen 2016 as a date to revisit the 3D methods of broadcasting, but it's fair to assume that the number of 3D-capable televisions will have grown significantly by then. What will they watch in the meantime? That, it seems, is now down to Hollywood. ESPN is shutting down its 3D operations this year too, citing "low adoption" as their reasons. It all seems a bit chicken-and-the-egg; without an existing customer-base, we'll not get much more 3D TV content... and without any 3D TV content, there's unlikely to be much of a customer-base.

What's the solution then? Potentially, games consoles. The PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One get released this year, and both will sport Blu-ray drives. This is significant, because the previous Xbox iteration was limited to a standard-def disc drive, and this limited the potential for 3D content on it. Months out from the release of either console, both are setting pre-order records, and it seems likely that their successful launches will keep Blu-ray players in the living room for the rest of the decade. This is significant because, for now at least, there's not many other legitimate methods for watching a 3D film. iTunes and Netflix don't support 3D content, but these new games consoles' Blu-ray players will. If enough people can get acclimatised to seeing 3D content in the home, it's possible the likes of ESPN and the BBC will legitimately revise the viewing landscape in 2016. We may yet see the Queen in 3D once more, but we'd best hope that Microsoft and Sony succeed in their console launches this Christmas.

1 comment:

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