Andy Stead

With the success of Avatar and new advances in 3D technology, audiences are set to see more and more 3D movies. The year 2010 saw a raft of 3D releases, and the outlook for 2011 is even better. Both new titles and old characters are making a 3D appearance on the silver screen; titles that have either been released or are pending include Yogi Bear, Jackass 3D, Piranha, Alpha and Omega 3D, Step Up 3D, Alice in Wonderland, Friday the 13th Part 2, Toy Story 3D and Shrek Forever.

So much for the cinema. But what about 3D on TV? When and how are we going to transition from the existing 2D TV images to true 3D imaging on our small screen? Is it even possible commercially, and how far away is it? The simple answer to both these questions is yes – and it’s not as far away as we think!

We are only now getting used to the availability of high-definition (HD) TV, albeit only on the DSTV subscription service, with a current offering of only four channels. Overseas, however, HD has been available for some time. So what is HD and what benefits does it offer over standard definition (SD)?

Simply put, a TV image is made up of dots, and the more dots there are, the higher the definition – the better the image.  And HD has a whole lot more dots than SD. Essentially HD offers the same advantages as sound over silent, colour over black and white, digital over analogue. Of course, there’s a whole lot more involved in it, such as bandwidth – the slice of the airwaves required to send the image. HD requires a lot more bandwidth than SD, making its transmission more complex and costly. Then there’s sound: HD generally uses Dolby 5.1 surround sound as opposed to the – at best – two-channel stereo of SD TV.

HD also requires special TV sets, either HD ready or full HD. But how does HD TV relate to 3D TV? The fact is, HD broadcasts may well be the pathway for transmission of full 3D images. How so?

How 3D works is to display of two offset images so as to simulate a three-dimensional image. Currently, most methods require special eye glasses. Interestingly, all future Disney and DreamWorks animated titles will be made in 3D, and previously released 2D movies are being reworked for 3D. Indeed, manufacturers such as JVC, LG and Samsung are selling 3D capable sets, and Sony, Panasonic and others are not far behind.

And broadcasters are gearing up too. Sky, a DBS operator and originator of many popular channels in the UK, has been shooting in 3D, broadcasting some content and archiving the rest for future use. ESPN in the US is also broadcasting in 3D, the Discovery Channel is expected to have a 3D channel late this year or in early 2011, and DirecTV plans to introduce 3D video on demand. Content is likely to be mainly sports, movies and special events.

In South Africa, history was made when Fifa and Sony launched the first-ever global 3D experience with three-dimensional soccer coverage of the 2010 World Cup. The footage was broadcast on ESPN and shown locally on large 3D TV screens at specially built venues such as that at Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg.

But are we going to see 3D TV in South Africa any time soon? Well, it is possible. To explain how, we’ll have to get a little technical. Shooting 3D requires either a twin-lens camera or two separate cameras, mounted on a custom-made rig, that record two images simultaneously – essentially a left- and right-eye image. The two images are off-set slightly, and when played back on a 3D screen and viewed through special polarised glasses, create the 3D effect. There are also “active” glasses and a somewhat different technique, but for the purposes of this explanation we’re focusing on the standard passive polarised-glass technique.

To broadcast 3D TV, the left- and right-eye images shot by the 3D camera are combined through a device known as a spatial multiplexer, and delivered as a single signal to an existing HD MPEG encoder – such as the one DSTV currently uses for their existing HD transmissions. The signal is then sent up via existing satellite links, with some sacrifice in resolution to accommodate 3D and save bandwidth, and received via the HD LNB at home. There it will be fed through the existing HD set-top decoder box and into a new 3D TV which will “demux” – de-multiplex or restore each left and right individual image – and display a 3D image when viewed through your glasses.

Essential this means that you can use the existing MPEG encoding and, more importantly, the existing set-top box in your home.

So it can be done. But will DSTV do it? The company is currently keeping mum on the subject, but their close association with the Discovery Channel, which has a commitment to 3D broadcast, may prompt them to deliver in the not too distant future.

So we can broadcast and receive 3D TV without much difficulty. But is South Africa’s film industry able to produce 3D programming? And are 3D TVs and other devices such as disc recorders currently available? Again, the answer is yes. In fact, South Africa is awash with 3D. There’s the experience of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, and local production companies are busy either gearing up or actually producing 3D commercials and programmes.

Johannesburg-based Duncan MacNeillie, who produced the first film version of Jock of the Bushveld, the Sir Percy Fitzpatrick book about the indomitable Staffordshire terrier, is in the final stages of producing a 3D animated version of the story. Although made for the cinema, the production could also be broadcast over a 3D TV network.

If you have watched MNet recently you may have seen the two animated commercials for the channel featuring a delightful ladybug and firefly. Both commercials were shot locally in full 3D and can be viewed as such in cinemas. Johannesburg-based Peter Lamberti, well known for his wildlife filming, currently has a contract with Discovery to supply eight hours of 3D footage for Discovery Channel, for delivery by the end of 2010. Other production companies are also involved in 3D imaging, and the number is growing.

Manufacturers are also not far behind. Most new high-end TV sets are likely to be 3D-ready, from major brands such as Sony, Samsung and LG. So 3D-ready sets will be in the home whether used for that purpose or not; the technology is coming and it is being pushed by the consumer electronic manufacturers. 3D play-out devices such as Blu-Ray and video game consoles available right now also mean that even without 3D broadcasts, audiences can be entertained by the wealth of 3D programmes.

So, to summarise: South Africa is able to shoot in 3D. In theory The DSTV HD network is capable of transmitting a 3D image. The HD decoder in your home is capable of receiving the 3D image, and if you have bought a 3D-ready TV you will be able to view 3D in your home. The only question that remains is when.