Posts Tagged ‘DirecTV’

James Cameron Says Half-Resolution 3D Is ‘Good Enough’ for the Home (Updated 4/28/11)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some readers have taken exception with my description of James Cameron’s statements pertaining to the half-resolution side-by-side and top+bottom 3D formats. Cameron did not endorse passive 3D at NAB; his comments below were limited only to these two frame-compatible 3D delivery systems. Accordingly, I have changed the headline to more accurately reflect his statements.

 

At the NAB show a few weeks ago, James Cameron and Vince Pace announced a new company to assist cinematographers and videographers in the production of 3D movies and TV shows by developing, selling, and leasing 3D camera systems.

 

Cameron feels that in the not-too-distant future, all feature film and TV series production could be mastered in 3D with 2D versions extracted from the digital files. The company has already developed a system for simultaneous 3D/2D production at live events, known as Shadow. It was used during the recent CBS broadcast of the Masters golf tournament.

 

While none of this is earth-shattering news, something Cameron said later during the question and answer period bears mentioning. In response to a question about carrying 3D over conventional broadcast channels, Cameron replied by first describing the side-by-side and top+bottom frame-compatible 3D formats, both of which sacrifice resolution.

 

Side-by-side is used exclusively on 1080i 3D broadcasts, resulting in left eye and right eye images that are anamorphically squeezed into the same video frame. For side-by-side 3D, each image winds up with 960×1080 resolution, while top+bottom images are re-sized to 1280×360. The lost pixels must be interpolated when each frame is anamorphically stretched back to its original size, which is why neither 3D system looks particularly sharp when compared to 3D Blu-ray discs.

 

After Cameron correctly identified side-by-side and top+bottom as being the only practical systems right now for broadcast, he then went on to say, “…full HD 3D would require a doubling of bandwidth, but it’s not necessary right now…you only need full HD for each eye for cinema-sized displays. You don’t need it for home displays. That’s my opinion right now.”

 

You can watch Cameron’s response here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI8OmPdSfBw&NR=1

 

That comment opened quite a few eyes, particularly mine. Here is the most influential filmmaker of his time when it comes to advanced technology, saying that full HD isn’t needed in the home, and that half-resolution 3D is adequate for now.

 

Really?

 

What about frame-packed 3D Blu-ray discs? I’m sure the Digital Entertainment Group would like to hear Cameron’s perspective on that one. So would any manufacturer of active-shutter 3D TVs. So would any person who just purchased a 3D TV measuring 46 inches and larger.

 

What about passive 3D TVs, which throw away half the vertical resolution from any 3D content? Why would you want to watch less-than-full HD 3D movies and TV shows on one of these sets and just make the problem worse?

 

I would think that Cameron would be strongly advocating for full HD across the board, particularly since one company (Sisivel) already showed a system at NAB 2011 that would accommodate two full-resolution 1280×720 views in a standard 6 MHz channel using H.264 AVC coding. Here’s a picture of what it looks like:

And that is how you pack two full-resolution 1280x720p 3D images into one standard 6 Mhz broadcast...with the help of a little MPEG4 encoding, of course.

The Sisivel system keeps the left eye frame intact; that is the normal 2D view. The right eye frame is broken up into three smaller tiles that are stitched together in the decoder/receiver. It’s not a new trick and is relatively simple to pull off with today’s powerful software and hardware.

 

Granted, ATSC broadcasters do not use MPEG4 encoding. But that’s not the point: Sisivel tried a different approach and came up with a way to handle 720p 3D content without sacrificing any resolution, something that ought to be of interest to ESPN’s 3D content producers who could deliver this format right now over cable and DBS systems.

 

MPEG2 compression systems have also gotten a lot more efficient, perhaps 100% better than they were a decade ago. While it’s not feasible to put a pair of 1920x1080i full-frame signals into a 6 MHz channel, it can be done now with 720p, based on the demos I saw at NAB.

 

No one should ‘settle’ for lower quality 3D if they are simultaneously trying to get the format to take off. There are plenty of sharp technical people out there that are coming up with creative ways to pack multiple HD programs into standard TV channels without compromising image quality. Stay tuned!

3D At Home: No One’s Buying It??

Last week, the Hollywood Reporter reported (accurately) that a majority of the attendees at the 2011 Hollywood Post Alliance Technology Retreat believe that 3D in the home is ‘dead’ and will never catch on.

Yes, I know you’ve heard about and read several surveys taken in the past year that show little or no enthusiasm for 3D at home. However, when people who create and distribute movies and TV shows for a living give 3D at home the thumbs-down, that’s big news.

I’ve attended every HPA Tech Retreat since 2002 and presented at most of them. Last year, we had a 3D supersession where many attendees expressed skepticism that 3D at home was viable. This year, the number of naysayers was substantial, as evidenced by a show of hands during the Day 1 presentation recaps by HPA leaders Leon Silverman and Jerry Pierce.  (This year’s Retreat had 450 registrants, by the way.)

The annual broadcasters’ panel brought forth more skepticism, with Fox saying that until there was a workable, viable ATSC 3D standard, they would stay on the sidelines. Those sentiments were pretty much echoed by ABC, NBC, Sinclair, PBS, and CBS.

As I mention in another post, we had a great breakfast roundtable discussion on 3D in the home, and whether it was a flop, partially successful, or had any real future. We also discussed the relative scarcity of 3D movies, which led to a question about why Hollywood isn’t remastering more of their older 3D movie titles into the Blu-ray format. The reply was that the cost to do those remasters probably wouldn’t be justified by Blu-ray disc sales, let alone rentals.

Let’s face it; 3D TV stumbled badly out of the gate in 2010. TV manufacturers locked up the most desirable 3D Blu-ray discs as part of exclusive TV bundles, creating an instant shortage of compelling 3D content. Want to watch Avatar in 3D? Sorry, you’ll have to buy a Panasonic 3D TV. How about any of the Shrek movies? You’ll need to buy a new Samsung 3D TV. Despicable Me? You’re looking at a new Sharp Aquos, pal.

What’s that – you just dropped $2,000 on a new 55-inch 120 Hz LED LCD TV a year ago? Hmmm – that’s a problem.

How about the new 3D TV networks? Well, ESPN 3D is a barker channel during most of the day. The World Cup was fun, but half the shots didn’t benefit at all from 3D.

Last fall, DirecTV’s 3D pay-per-view channel was showing Journey to the Center of the Earth, followed by Journey to the Center of the Earth, followed by Journey to the Center of the Earth…well, you get it.

As far as 2011 goes, the outlook for 3D TV sales isn’t very sunny. Nielsen’s annual State of All Media survey, taken in Q4 of 2010, showed that “…76% of respondents ‘probably won’t or ‘definitely won’t’ buy a 3D TV in the next 12 months. 2% of respondents already own a 3D TV, while only 6% “definitely’ or ‘probably’ will buy one.”

The problem is compounded by VIZIO and Toshiba saying that consumers don’t need to buy expensive LCD glasses to watch 3D TV. VIZIO is leading a charge to passive (half-resolution) 3D TV, with the selling point being that you can use those same 50-cent RealD circular polarized glasses they gave you at the local multiplex cinema.

According to a news story in today’s TWICE magazine, LG showcased their new line of passive 3D LCD TVs – called Cinema 3D – at the Film Independent Spirit Awards last week. The TWICE story quoted LG Electronics USA president Wayne Park as saying, “We think we can take advantage of — at least in 3DTV — the leadership position for the whole industry…with our distinguishing 3D technology, we can bring a much more affordable and enjoyable experience to the consumer, so that our 3DTVs can leap ahead of the industry.” Also, “Park said he believes passive-glasses technologies will ultimately win out over active-shutter systems due to the many benefits that resonate with consumers.”

Toshiba’s claim that you can drop glasses altogether upsets the apple cart even more, and has apparently convinced the average Joe that there is a format war in 3D (shades of the 1080i vs. 720p battles ten years ago). Skipping past the technical details, what today’s consumers are hearing is that 3D is very much in the laboratory stage and that it is probably a smart idea to sit on the sidelines for a while until all of the details are worked out – and until 3D TVs without glasses are widely available.

So, what’s a TV manufacturer to do?

First off, it’s evident that consumers will NOT pay a premium for 3D functionality. There are simply too many 2D TV models available for less than $1,000, including a couple of 55-inch screens. Asking consumers to pony up an additional $500 – $1,000 just to watch a handful of movies and 3D networks is a waste of energy right now…particularly when you consider all of the people who bought new big-screen LCD and plasma TVs in the past five years.

Second, release the exclusively-bundled 3D Blu-ray discs immediately to the open market. If you want someone to buy a fancy new sports car, make sure there are plenty of gas stations where they can fill it up!

Third, drop the prices on 3D Blu-ray players to a level commensurate with networked Blu-ray players. Those are selling very well because consumers are using them as Internet TV set-top boxes to gain access to Netflix (20 million subscribers and counting).

Fourth, continue exploring marketing partnerships with content producers to create 3D channels that more people can watch. Currently, only the Sony-Discovery-IMAX 3Net channel and ESPN’s 3D channel are available to any viewer on any Pay TV system. 3D on DirecTV does nothing for a Comcast subscriber, or a Dish Network subscriber. Comcast’s new 3D channel is inaccessible to Verizon FiOS customers. Content drives TV viewership – HDTV started in 1998 but didn’t really take off until about 2004, when all of the major TV networks finally had a strong slate of HD programming to watch.

Unfortunately, the perceived format war between active shutter, passive, and autostereo (a really inferior way to watch 3D, if you ask me) is going to keep sales of 3D TVs down in 2011. Consumer enthusiasm is so low that most of the 3D demos at my nearby Best Buy appear to have been turned off for good. (Not that they could find any working active shutter glasses if they needed to…)

At this past Sunday’s Ambler Theater Oscars Party, I set up a Samsung PN50C8000 3D plasma TV with four pairs of glasses (fresh batteries in every one) and a 3D animated movie (Monsters vs. Aliens), smack in the middle of the concessions lobby. Plenty of people (young and old) came over to watch for a few minutes, were appropriately wowed, asked what the 3D set-up cost, said “that’s nice, but I can’t see having to wear glasses to watch TV” and then walked away to one of the three main theaters.

They’re just not buying it.

Can You Cut the Cord and Still Find Happiness in TV Land?

The newspapers have been full lately of stories that (a) claim cord-cutting will have no impact on pay TV viewing, or (b) show an increasing number of TV viewers are dumping (or strongly considering dumping) cable TV packages in favor of broadband video, or broadband plus over-the-air digital TV.

On the “it’s no big deal side,” you’ll find ESPN and Frank Magid Associates, while the “cord cutting is a growing trend” camp is represented by Parks and Associates, Time Warner, and SNL Kagan. While both sides acknowledge that the pay TV industry suffered its first-ever net loss of subscribers from April to September of this year, they disagree on the reasons.

ESPN and Magid claim that the total subscriber churn is less than 1%, and may be as low as one-quarter of one percent. They attribute the drop-off to the recession and expiring triple-play special deals. Parks points to the explosion in sales of Internet-connected TVs (NeTVs) and connected Blu-ray players and DVRs. Time Warner, in the meantime, just launched a lower-price basic “popular demand” channel package to hold on to subscribers, and will be followed by Charter Communications shortly.

Time for some clarity! According to a story on paidContent.org, Needham & Co. analyst Laura Martin reported the results of a simple request she made of 300 respondents in October: “Please list which TV channels you must have available online in order for you to turn off your pay TV subscription.”

Guess who sat at the top of the list? CBS, named by 35% of respondents. The #2 slot was filled by ABC (right behind at 34%), while Fox was in a tie with NBC at 31%.

The highest-rated pay TV network was (no surprise) ESPN, listed by 27% of respondents. The rest of the top ten was made up of Discovery (19%), History Channel (14%), HBO (11%), Comedy Central (10%), and The Food Network (also 10%).

It’s interesting that the top four networks are also available in many markets for free as over-the-air digital TV broadcasts. That also may explain why some cord-cutters are quick to dump cable TV and get their TV fix with antennas and a broadband connection.  (For what it’s worth, PBS finished in a seven-way tie with The CW, MTV, HGTV, CNN, Lifetime, and Bravo.)

The paidContent article comments that most respondents who voted for at least one over-the-air TV network also listed the rest of them. “Most folks think of the four broadcasters as a monolith,” said Martin. “This may be because consumers actually watch shows on all four broadcast networks, or it could be because they have no idea which network their favorite shows are on.”

For viewers who live near major cities, it’s not unusual to have as many as 30+ minor channels of free, over-the-air programming available. Those viewers are also more likely to have fast broadband, so cutting off cable or satellite TV still leaves them with plenty of program choices…and apparently, their ‘can’t live without’ TV networks as well.

So yes, you can find some happiness in the world of free TV…so long as you are willing to part with a few cable and satellite networks, and have a good broadband connection for Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and other Internet TV channels.

To Readers: How about you? Would you be willing to drop cable or satellite TV, and just live with what you can watch using an antenna and a fast Internet connection? Or maybe you’ve already cut the cord? I’d like to hear your comments one way or the other.

3D over broadcast digital TV: Can it be done right now?

I’ve been asked more than a few times this year if it is at all possible to transmit 3D over digital terrestrial television broadcasting (DTTB), or what we know simply as “free digital TV.” There seems to be a perception that one must have a Pay TV subscription service (cable, DBS, FiOS, or U-Verse) to access 3D programming.

Believe it or not, carrying 3D over terrestrial broadcast stations is mostly a business decision. Yes, major TV networks like CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC could start broadcasting programs in 3D right now. And your 3D-enabled TV would be able to process the 3D signals correctly so the programs can be watched with active-shutter glasses. (I’m not going to discuss color anaglyph 3D here, which works over any TC channel, but produces the lowest quality of 3D.)

The ‘catch’ is that the 3D content would have to be delivered in a frame-compatible format, such as 720p/60 top + bottom (like ESPN uses), or 1080i/30 side-by-side (like DirecTV uses). Both of these formats were specifically developed to fit in a standard 6 MHz channel space, using a maximum bit rate of about 19.39 Mb/s. And in fact, broadcasts of 3D content from earlier this year were delivered in the MPEG2 format that is standard for over-the-air digital TV.

The top + bottom format used for 720p/60 frame-compatible broadcasts.

The fact that cable companies and satellite broadcasters are now moving to MPEG4 encoding for 3D carriage shouldn’t be discouraging. MPEG4 (more specifically, H.264 AVC) provides for 50% compression efficiency over MPEG2. But broadcasters can still pipe a pretty good 3D signal into your home using MPEG2, which has also gotten a lot more efficient in the nearly 20 years it’s been around.

Remember that both of the frame-compatible 3D formats sacrifice some image resolution to fit within a standard channel width/bit rate constraint, no matter what service you get 3D from. For top+bottom, your TV receives a combination frame with two 1280×360 images, anamorphically squeezed in the vertical plane. For side-by-side, each frame of video provides a pair of 960×1080 images, anamorphically squeezed in the horizontal plane.

Your 3D TV separates the two frames and reverses the anamorphic squeeze with a stretching process, resulting in full left eye/right eye frames – albeit with somewhat lower resolution. But today’s TVs do a pretty good job of interpolating pixels to correct for de-interlacing and judder, so these half-resolution images don’t look nearly as bad as you might think.

The side-by-side 1080i/30 format used for 1080i/30 broadcasts.

So, what’s holding broadcasters back? For one thing, available bits! DTTB is limited to a maximum bit rate of 19.39 Mb/s, and that leaves just enough room for one full HD channel (15 Mb/s maximum bit rate) and perhaps a standard-definition channel (3 MB/s maximum bit rate) to go along with it. So a broadcaster would have to devote the entire HD bit rate to the 3D program. Jamming a second 720p/60 or 1080i/30 3D program alongside the standard 2D broadcast would not be practical, as image quality on both channels would suffer.

Another possibility would be to transmit a 2D signal (left eye) and carry the right eye signal as a separate program. This would be a similar approach to analog FM stereo broadcasts, where the stereo information is transmitted as a subcarrier, or analog color TV, where the color burst is also carried as a subcarrier.

This technique can be accomplished digitally by transmitting a full-bandwidth 2D signal (left eye) and carrying additional metadata (2D + depth information) required to create the stereoscopic effect. That metadata would add something to the payload, and would rely on the some of the image processing inside the TV.

Now, a broadcaster could carry the Super Bowl in full HD as before (720p or 1080i), yet still enable 3D viewing for TVs equipped to handle the 3D signal. But there’s another ‘catch:’ Your TV would have to recognize the metadata ‘package’ and be able to open it up, rebuild the right eye frames, and sequence them accordingly.

Because it’s not likely that a DTTB station would use its entire bandwidth to carry a 3D broadcast of a big event, the 2D + depth format would make the most sense, just as older black and white TVs could still display a color TV program simply by ignoring the chrominance signals. I don’t know of any consumer TVs that are equipped to handle the 2D + depth format, so some sort of outboard adapter would be required to make this work.

The good news is that such a 3D converter box would not have to be expensive. It would incorporate an ATSC tuner (maybe even a pair of tuners!) and would be equipped to process the DTTB 3D signal into top + bottom or side-by-side formats, using a standard HDMI output connection to the TV. Frankly, such a box ought not to cost much more than $100, and could also be sold as a bundle with one or two pairs of universal active shutter glasses. (Motorola showed a prototype 3D converter box at NAB 2010 for older, non-3D TVs.)

What programs would work in 3D? Aside from football, which I do not believe benefits much from 3D based on my recent experiences, I’d say basketball, hockey, auto racing, Olympics individual events, golf, and tennis. Basically any sports event where the camera can get close enough to realistically create a sense of depth.

Who would be likely to try 3D broadcasts? My guess would be ABC and Fox for starters, given how much sports programming these networks already carry and how many stations they own. ABC, of course, is part of Disney, who also owns ESPN. ABC has the NBA, college football, and the Indianapolis 500, while Fox operates an extensive sports division and covers college and pro football, auto racing, and major league baseball.

NBC might also dip their toes in the water with Olympics coverage, Notre Dame football, NASCAR, horse racing, and Sunday Night Football. I’d see CBS as the last network to try this out, simply because they adhere to a strict ‘no multicast’ policy at all of their owned-and-operated (O&O) CBS and CW stations.

So the answer to the question is “Yes, free TV stations can broadcast 3D programming, and they can broadcast it now.” The catch is, do they want to, and which delivery format would they adopt to make it work?

Cable TV – Socialism?

We’ve just passed through a very contentious mid-term election, characterized by a change in the political majority in the House of Representatives, and a smaller margin in the Senate.

In addition to the usual established political parties, a newer movement, the self-named Tea Party, is grounded in protests against ‘big government,’ deficit spending, and ‘creeping socialism’ and has managed to secure quite a few seats for itself in Washington come next January.

Regardless of how you feel about the recent tempestuous election and its outcome (which isn’t anything new; review your American history and you’ll find similar political uprisings in the past), you’d have to agree that there is widespread concern about our government trying to be all things to all people, filing in the economic holes that free market, capitalist systems often leave behind.

The way our system of government works now, many of your tax dollars go to benefit people in other towns, cities, counties, and even states. You may not be aware of it (most people aren’t), but for every mile you drive on a federally-subsidized interstate highway, someone in another state is driving on a similar highway, part of which was paid for with your tax dollars. (n some states, LOTS of your tax dollars.)

Is that socialism? Sure it is! Our legislators made a decision that all American citizens benefit from an interstate highway system, even if most of us never drive more than 50 miles from home.

Now, back to my cable TV analogy. You pay taxes because you have to, and your tax dollars subsidize many government agencies and programs. But you don’t pay cable TV bills because you have to. After all, no one forces you to watch television!

Yet, your cable TV payments subsidize numerous TV networks that you’ll probably never watch. That’s because your cable TV operator has decided that all of its subscribers benefit from having 200+ channels of programming to choose from, even if most viewers never watch more than 15 channels.

Is this socialism? Essentially. Your cable TV payments (beyond operating costs and profit) are split up and shared among a wide variety of channels using a tiered model of distribution. You pay for a block (tier) of channels, and you can watch or ignore them – it’s your choice. This revenue structure ensures that all cable TV networks get a guaranteed rate of return, although there is quite a disparity between the most popular networks like ESPN (over $4 per subscriber) and small-audience channels like Lifetime and Oxygen (nickels and dimes per subscriber).

Trouble is; many Americans are trying to make ends meet in a recession right now. And all of their monthly expenses are coming under scrutiny, including ever-escalating cable TV costs. So it’s not unreasonable to ask why cable companies expect them to pay every month for an ‘all-you-can-eat buffet’ when smaller, a la carte dishes will suffice.

And there’s the thrust of my argument. Cable TV revenue subsidizes minor TV networks and channels that would never make it on their own in a free market system – they just wouldn’t draw enough viewers. Yet, we still have to pay for them anyway and keep them alive whether they deserve to stay in business, or not.

Satellite TV systems, FiOS, and U-Verse also work the same way. You pay a flat monthly rate and are delivered a slew of channels, many of which you’ll simply ignore as you stay hooked to ESPN, Discovery, Fox News, USA, AMC, MSNBC, TBS, TNT, and other ratings leaders.

Is it time to move to a different model? You betcha, especially when cable TV channel subscriptions are being dropped like hot potatoes. Even the head of Time Warner cable, Glenn Britt, has acknowledged that it is probably time to come up with ‘value’ cable TV packages that will convince customers to stay aboard, yet deliver the popular channels that viewers really want. (For more on this story, read what GigaOM had to say about Britt’s comments.)

The cable TV industry has vigorously resisted any moves towards a la carte pricing, because channel tiers are best for the company’s bottom line. But that may have to change, as consumers start to value Internet connections more than TV channel packages and access TV content over broadband connections in lieu of changing channels.

So my question is this: If socialism is supposedly a bad thing when it comes to government, why is it a good thing when it comes to cable TV service?