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Cable Engineers Push Standard for 3DTV Signals

If engineers from a cable industry technology consortium get their way, consumers that shell out big bucks for new 3D-enabled HDTVs won't need to make any manual adjustments on the sets in order to view 3D programming.

When Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) distributed 3D video from The Masters golf tournament last week, the few subscribers with 3DTVs received on-screen messages explaining how to adjust the sets to process the 3D signal. (See Photos: Comcast Tees Up 3DTV Masters and Comcast Courts Early 3DTV Adopters.)

But under a new standard for 3D programming signals that could emerge from the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) , viewers would be able to watch 3D networks as easily as 2D programming, as long as they're wearing 3D glasses, according to David Broberg, vice president of consumer video technology at CableLabs .

Broberg, a 3D technology buff who began experimenting with 3D photography in the 1970s, chairs the 3D Ad Hoc Group formed by SCTE's Digital Video Subcommittee, which has been tasked with writing a report that addresses how the cable industry should pursue 3D standards. He's also a member of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) Task Force on 3D and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) 3D Task force. (See SCTE Looks at 3DTV .)

Broberg says his group plans to file a report to SCTE's Digital Video Subcommittee in June that will address signaling methods for 3D programming. SCTE will develop a 3D signal identification standard within one or two years after the report is submitted, Broberg said.

"The part that we're likely to develop some new standards to work around will be some new signaling methods that will help identify that 3D signal from other 2D signals. That will make the service more user-friendly," he said, explaining that the signals would allow TVs to automatically detect 3D programming, eliminating the need for viewers to change the settings manually. [Ed. note: In the meantime, companies such as Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) have started to develop box software with built-in 3D smarts on their own.]

Some major cable programmers, including Discovery Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK) and ESPN, are developing 3D networks in the absence of such standards. (See ESPN Jumps Into the 3DTV Game and Discovery Prez: New 3D Net Will Need 6MHz .)

Cable operators are also experimenting with 3D. Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) ran a 3D broadcast of a New York Rangers game earlier this month, and Comcast distributed a 3D feed from The Masters on its systems, and supplied the feed to Cablevision, Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), Cox Communications Inc. , and Canadian MSO Shaw Communications Inc. (See Cablevision, Verizon Set Stage for 3DTV Battle , Verizon & DirecTV: We Weren't Offered Swing at 3D Masters , and Comcast Courts Early 3DTV Adopters.)

Broberg says a lack of standards won't prevent cable networks from moving forward with 3D programming plans. "That [standards effort] doesn't hold anything back. The 3D delivery can proceed, and has, in fact, started proceeding," he added.

There are two primary formats for the creation of 3D programming -- the "side-by-side" format compromises the horizontal resolution in order to create 3D depth, while the "top-bottom" format compromises the vertical resolution to achieve depth.

New 3DTVs from Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE), Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC), Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC), and other manufacturers can display programming produced in either format, but viewers are required to manually select the format used by the 3D network they want to view.

"It'll make for a more user-friendly experience," Broberg says of the developing 3DTV standards effort. "Right now, it's kind of an early-adopter experience. You won't have to choose side by side or top-bottom."

For its Masters 3D coverage from Augusta National, Comcast ran a bumper on its 3D channel feed instructing viewers to place their TVs in 3D mode, and to select the side-by-side format. One of the challenges cable operators could face in displaying instructions in a 3D program is that each TV manufacturer uses its own menu or user interface for adjustment settings.

SCTE isn't the only industry group working on a 3D standard. CEA is developing a standard for transmitting signals to 3D eyewear. Active shutter glasses from the various CE brands aren't interchangeable today, and the standard could resolve that issue.

CEA is also developing a standard for the interface between a 3D television and a set-top box, and is working on a closed captioning standard update to support 3D depth enhancements. SMPTE, meanwhile, is working on a 3D Home Master standard that addresses the mastering and production of 3D content.

— Steve Donohue, Special to Light Reading Cable

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