Future of Television: 3DTV or IPTV?

It is an exciting time to be working in TV. Whether you work in production, distribution, PR or engineering - the technology and medium of TV is undergoing a revolution. None of us have a crystal ball but even if we did - it will be hard to predict exactly where TV will end up in 10 years time. One thing is clear - TV seems to be moving in two apparently different directions.

This divergence becomes particularly apparent when you look at the two biggest technology buzz words - 3DTV and IPTV. These two technologies both have the power to transform the way we watch TV but at the same time they are seemingly at odds with each other. This is the divergence.

Take Britain first. We have a pretty vibrant media scene in the UK with a lot of choices in channels and content. Despite the inevitable complaints from some of the audience – few would disagree that British television is amongst the finest in the world.

And then we have the technology: increasingly, for most of us in the UK - TV means a plasma screen or LED TV that is probably HD ready. Britain has already begun to switch of its analogue TV signals so the vast majority of people in Britain now watch TV via cable, satellite or digital terrestrial (through an antenna). The bandwidth for these old analogue TV signals has been handed over for the UK’s 4G network to improve our creaking, slow and expensive Internet coverage.

So we now all have our shiny new TVs with shiny content to watch – but that is not enough for the TV manufacturers. Now they want us to put our hands in our pockets again and go out to buy the next generation of TVs.

One channel, Sky, already broadcasts some programmes in 3D and in the next few months the BBC will begin broadcasting some if its Olympics coverage in 3D. It would seem that before too much longer the TV manufactures will be pushing us down the road of buying 3D – whether we want it or not.

Russia is in a very different place. It would probably be fair to say Russian viewers have a lot less choice in home-grown channels than their European counterparts. The monopoly of control over Russian media has also taking its toll with plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest viewers are turning away from TV in Russia. The lack of any truly independent media means increasingly people are looking elsewhere for their entertainment and news. The place they are looking is inevitably the Internet.

Unlike the major cities in the UK, the Russian metropolitan areas offer fast, cheap and reliable Internet that allows for the possibility of TV existing outside of the traditional broadcasting sphere. Russian TV may still be broadcasting old 4:3 with analogue signals - but on millions of mobile screens, tablets and computers a new generation of viewers are tuning in to content that looks like TV – but isn’t. This is IPTV.

IPTV can mean many things. It can mean catch-up services that allow you to watch TV programmes when you like (these are common enough in the UK and generally mirror the content available from the traditional broadcaster). Russia, however, is leading the field in another kind of IPTV – live TV channels that look and feel like regular TV but are designed to be watched via the Internet.

The emergence of channels like TV Dozhd and Caramba TV seem to prove the statistics. Russia is already the leading IPTV market in Central and Eastern Europe and predicted to be in the 10 ten IPTV markets over the next 10 years. If these channels succeed (and they seem to be already making inroads to the traditional TV market) it will be because they are providing good content that is accessible on the move – and not because of picture quality or 3D services.

The different stories of the UK and Russia can be mirrored around the world – with many countries ‘leapfrogging’ the move to HD in favor of increased choice through IPTV. So does this mean just one of these new technologies will win out? Could IPTV kill off 3D or vice versa?

Well no, says John Ive from the International Association of Broadcast Manufacturers. He believes this is just two different types of TV emerging and both can co-exist alongside each other. “I think 3D TV is the natural evolution from HD but this is very much appointment to watch TV – an event. IPTV or mobile TV is about the convenience to watch on the move – when you want. Lets face it we are a long way from being able to watch 3D TV on a mobile phone, but that is not the issue, says John: “IPTV tends to be more about the content and less perhaps about the image.”

There is however one last bit of technology I saw recently - that could help to bring IPTV and 3D together. This is a technology that produces synthetic 3D - turning traditional 2D images into 3D.

Toshiba have released a new laptop that allows you to watch 3D video without glasses - and it even turns regular 2D into a form of 3D. Meanwhile, the Blackmagic company (and it seems like magic) has released a device that converts standard definition pictures into HD – and then converts them into 3D. The holy grail of TV producers everywhere. The effect is perhaps not quite as dramatic as Avatar watched on the big screen – but it is the first hint that one day maybe all our TVs could be showing 3D content. Even IPTV.

Author: Wesley Dodd, Director of Business & Consulting, Celebro Media Networks (London)

This feature was first published in Russian in RBC Daily, Russia's leading business news publication, produced in Moscow in cooperation with Handelsblatt: http://www.rbcdaily.ru/2012/05/21/media/562949983893254 followed by comments of Russian telecom experts in Modern Telecommunications of Russia online magazine

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