New 3D Tile Format Lets 2D Sets Display 3D Signal

Europe could steal a march on the U.S. in the 3DTV stakes after the Dec. 1 launch of a technology that provides backwards-compatibility between stereoscopic signals and existing 2D sets. The 3D Tile Format is a joint development by public and private research and broadcast organisations in the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont, including Sisvel, Quartarete TV, and CSP Innovazione.

Quartarete TV, a privately owned DTV station broadcasting in Turin, is now running a stereoscopic test service using 3D Tile Format. The technology was conceived by Paolo D’Amato, chief executive of research and development company Sisvel Technology. As a former engineer at Italian public broadcaster RAI, he has a solid grounding in TV technology. He says he had the idea for the new system only in the past few months, initially as a way of improving the quality of 3D pictures.

The aim of 3D Tile Format is to offer a better alternative to the outputs of the two current methods of shooting stereoscopic pictures, using two cameras either side-by-side or in a mirror rig, also known as the top-and-bottom configuration.

Integrating two 720p frames in a single 1080p frame, D’Amato explains, prevents the unbalanced horizontal and vertical resolutions that can be created as a result of either a side-by-side or a top-and-bottom arrangement.

3D Tile Format is based on the MPEG-4 Part 10 (H.264) technology now being used in Europe for digital TV. This gives it access to extensive metadata capability, which is used to make the stereo image backwards-compatible with 2D systems.

This will benefit both broadcasters and TV-production teams, D’Amato says. “There are cost savings to be made on both sides. If a broadcaster is able to transmit a compatible signal, then there is no need for simulcasting 3D and 2D, which saves on bandwidth and bitrates.”

On the production side, there is the possibility to reduce the number of cameras used by having only 3D rigs that will also produce 2D pictures. “It is very expensive to shoot twice,” D’Amato says. “And finding places for 3D rigs alongside the HD cameras takes up a lot of space. There also has to be two crews and two OB trucks. So using the same pictures for both 2D and 3D would be beneficial, which makes backwards-compatibility important.”

D’Amato acknowledges, however, that having two sets of equipment is necessary for sport at the moment because the styles and grammar of directing 3D and 2D coverage are very different.

“Football and rugby take place on large fields, and there is a smaller number of 3D rigs used compared to HD cameras, which would not look good for the 2D coverage, so directors have to adapt,” he points out. “But sports like basketball, boxing, and hockey take place in smaller areas, so there is not such a big difference between the 3D and 2D coverage in terms of angles.”

The DVB Project, which specifies digital-TV technologies, is currently drawing up recommendations for 3D technology. These could be ready by as soon as the beginning of next year, but the first version of this specification will not include 3D Tile Format. “We are active within DVB,” says D’Amato, “but backwards-compatibility will not feature in the specifications until late 2011 into 2012 or even 2013.”

In the meantime, viewers in Turin watching on their 2D sets are likely to be the first beneficiaries of 3D Tile Format when Quartarete TV begins transmitting full 3D programmes, possibly in time for Christmas.

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