Will the 3D Olympics be the turning point for 3D TV?

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The biggest 3D TV event in history will start next week, when over 230 hours of 3D coverage from the games will be available to global audiences. Will this be 3D TV’s 'Avatar' moment?

It has been 26 years since the first experimental HD broadcast of the LA 1984 Olympic Games and, from July 27th, viewers will be able to watch the London’s third hosted Olympics in 3D. Gymnastics, swimming, basketball and canoeing will be just a few of the games available in 3D which will commence with the Opening Ceremony this Friday.

Anyone could be forgiven for thinking 3D has failed, with bloggers and journalists detailing (and sometimes relishing in) poor 3D TV sales, decreasing 3D box office sales and the public’s general lack of appetite for 3D entertainment. And they would be right. 3D champion James Cameron has admitted that 3D TV has not captured people’s imagination as fast as he had expected; Sony were very quiet about 3D gaming during this year’s CES and Disney’s Brave only achieved 32% in 3D box office sales over its opening weekend.

But while the huge potential of the Chinese 3D market keeps investors, movie studios and 3D distributors hopeful, the Olympics will provide the clearest indication yet of whether people in the west want to watch 3D sports in the home.

In the UK, BSkyB will be making the Sky 3D channel available to all its 4 million plus HD subscribers for free. Currently, the channel is only available to those who subscribe to the full sports and movie package. From 09.00am on July 27th, the channel will carry Eurosport’s 3D Olympics coverage every day until 01.30am, offering over 100 hours of 3D coverage. Of course, HD subscribers will still need a 3D TV and with Sky closely guarding their statistics, it is difficult to judge how many of those 4 million HD subscribers own 3D TVs (The most recent statistics for overall 3D TV ownership in the UK suggested 1.3 million with 250,000 subscribing to Sky 3D).

If viewers miss an event they will be able to find highlights packages of the previous day’s events on the Sky Anytime VoD service. There will be an hour long daily highlights package which is put together by Eurosport and also a 10 minute daily highlights package that Sky will produce, focusing more on GB hopefuls.

Eurosport are an official rights holder for the Olympics but have confirmed the pan-European sports broadcaster has no intention to launch a dedicated 3D channel. Virgin Media will also be taking Eurosport’s 3D feed and the BBC will produce a nightly 3D highlights programme as well as broadcast the opening and closing ceremonies which will be aired on the BBC HD channel. Due to the BBC’s remit of platform neutrality, the 3D content will be available across all platforms including Freeview.

In America, NBC are launching a dedicated 3D Olympics channel which will be carried by many cable, satellite and telco providers such as AT&T, Comcast and DIRECTV. Nearly 80% of Americans will have access to a whopping 242 hours of 3D coverage. The coverage will be ad free (aside from commercial spots from partners and sponsors) and the graphics will be given the stereoscopic treatment. 


In France, Orange TV will provide daily 3D broadcasts (from 10.00 am to 11.00 pm or midnight depending on the day’s events) on a dedicated 3D channel called FranceTVSport 3D.

The OBS were surprised at the level of interest from international broadcasters who requested the official broadcaster to shoot the games in 3D back in 2011. 3ality Technica 3D rigs will be used, linked to a Telegenic OB truck. Alfacam have supplied over 20 OB units to the Games and will be used in conjunction with KronoMav 3D rigs and a EuroMedia OB truck will be using TLS (Total Lens Control) rigs. As official 3D equipment provider and sponsor, Panasonic handheld 3D camcorders will be used where there is neither time or space to set up and locate an outside broadcast truck. Six separate ENG crews, made up of three crews each will work together for the 3D broadcast and the intention is that 75-80% of the coverage will come from 33 native 3D cameras and 25-20% from 2D converted cameras.

The key questions are 'how many viewers who have access to the 3D coverage will decide to watch'? And (possibly the most important question of them all), 'will they stick with the 3D coverage or return to 2D'?

While the London Olympics 3D coverage is a huge opportunity for the 3D industry, it also poses massive risks. The BBC’s recent Wimbledon tennis 3D coverage attracted a lot of negative criticism with the Guardian saying ‘it was less than satisfying’ and comments from 3D Focus readers such as “This needs to change or I won't watch it. And I LOVE 3D!!!” and “Poor 3D like this is not going to make viewers switch to watching stereo content”.

Due to compromises made by squeezing in 3D cameras into a small space, it is further proof that if 3D cannot be better than the 2D footage, should it be done at all?

As BBC Sport Executive Producer Paul Davies told us, “I think the initial impact of seeing sport from different angles is very alien to people. Initially they say ‘wow this is amazing’ when they put the glasses on but by the end of the first or second set they’re thinking ‘well I’m a bit too low down here and I actually want to get that main camera experience again because I can’t see the baseline or I am getting uncomfortable.”

CEO of 3ality Technica, Steve Schklair recognises the responsibility his company holds since winning the bid. “The 3D Olympics needs to be more than technically perfect,” he said. “If the 3D feed of the Opening Ceremony, for example, is not more compelling than the 2D feed then people will switch back to the 2D. Our concern is about generating compelling content.”

If the biggest sporting event in the world can’t persuade people to watch in 3D, will that be a wake-up call to the industry?

Most people who do support 3D entertainment are now saying it is only suitable for ‘event television’. With the Olympics dominating the schedules for two weeks, we can safely assume most people will not be wearing their 3D glasses for the majority of the coverage. When not at work, they are more likely to be tapping away on a laptop, doing the ironing or even (shocking as it might sound) be pottering in the garden with UK temperatures finally improving. Radio and TV coverage will likely be providing a background ambience of the games. However, key moments such as the closing and opening ceremonies, the 100 metres men’s final and when a country’s core sportsperson is in action, will be when 3D has to shine, and it is those moments that will determine if there is an appetite for 3D sports.

The 3D broadcasts will have to contend their own battle – will there be enough glasses to go around in people’s homes for these historic moments?; will people forgive the half resolution, flicker and darker images? Or will people not want the distraction of 3D for moments that only come around once every four years – will they not want to ‘take that risk’?

The occasion is important for Sky who has invested considerable sums of money into a 3D channel that is only available to a very small audience. “We hope that our coverage satisfies our current 3D customers and of course hope that it encourages more 3D viewing” a Sky representative told us.

No doubt the 3D coverage will be heavily promoted on Sky’s channels and it will be interesting if this influences the sales of 3D TVs which can now be purchased for the same price as a regular 2D HD TV a year ago. Only today LG were selling a 27" 3D TV for £200.

“Sky 3D is about offering a brilliant television experience – it’s what the term ‘event TV’ was made for. There is no bigger event in the UK this year than the Olympics; and we’d be doing our customers a disservice if we weren’t covering it.” say Sky.
Other outlets include selected Vue and Cineworld cinemas and glasses free 3D displays supplied by Stream Networks in the Walkabout Pub Covent Garden.
Sky 3D pubs will offer have the option to screen the games around the country.

Aside from 3D, the London Olympics will also be filmed in Super Hi-Vision and 360 degree capture technology. Sky told us that “Super Hi-Vision is one of the many things that we’re looking at in the long-term but our priorities at the moment are ensuring that Sky 3D is the best it can be for our customers”. 360 degree capture will be conducted by YellowBird who have set up production teams in London and will update their website to show the latest interactive video.

Only time will tell how successful the 3D coverage is. However, even if it is not as popular as hoped, it is not the nail in the coffin. We have always questioned whether sports should be positioned as the ‘killer app’ for 3D television. We understand the rationale behind it – it is a relatively low cost way of producing many hours of 3D content and sports is highly popular. However, through our research, most sports fans prefer the 2D versions having watched in 3D. With 3D artefacts, dim screens and poor resolution this is understandable. Fortunately, all these issues are being addressed and, if the Rio Olympics are broadcast in 3D, it should be a far more compelling experience. But in order for it to succeed, it has to be better than the 2D coverage, and not just rely on the third dimension.

In our own poll, 3D Focus recently polled 706 readers asking "Do you think the 2012 Olympic 3D coverage will boost the 3D industry? 520 said Yes (74%) and 186 said No (26%).

What do you think? Will you be watching any of the games in 3D? Has it persuaded you to purchase a 3D TV? Do you prefer watching your sports in 2D or 3D? Do you think sports is an ideal genre for 3D television? We would be delighted to hear your thoughts below!


  • Petri

    Olympics in 3D sounds absolutely fantastic to me. Too bad it will be near-impossible to see any 3D coverage of the games over here in Finland. Oh, and forget about converted 3D. Totally misses the point, methinks.

  • Nbown

    Here in Australia we now have a dedicated Channel 9 3d channel just for the olympics and yes i will be watching

  • Roger Bailey

    YES!  I am looking forward to watching the Olympics in 3D, whilst crossing my (digital) fingers that it will be shot with such careful preparation, that it will prove to be effective 3D. Blu-Ray 1080p Full HD still has the advantage. Hi-Vision is very promising as it develops, along with 4K and 8K starting to appear. 

  • Derek

    The 250,000 is the number of Sky subscribers who have activated the Sky 3D channel, not sales of 3D TV sets.

    A recent Ofcom survey showed that 8% of UK homes have a 3D TV. 

  • mikesparky

    I have been watching some 3d content on a 40″ Samsung  5 series along with my family we are not impressed with viewing and all find it quite distracting. Bright lights and back drops with white lines on are very difficult to watch the foreground being viewed. Wathing in HD is really much more satisfying and content enjoyed. I cannot beleive the 3d is so poor in presentation and quality

  • Flo334

    Derek, please can you direct me to the Ofcom survey that showed 8% of UK homes have a 3D TV. Thanks

  • StereoStephen

    I have been watching the Olympics highlights in 3D from the BBC HD channel. I think broadcasting just a highlights programme in 3D is a good start. Being just a highlights programme, it gives the programme editors the opportunity to correctly adjust the stereo window to give the optimum stereo exerience. Live TV coverage is probably technically rather difficult and will probably mean the coverage will mix 2D and 3D sequences as was the case in several sports at the Olympics.
    The BBC did a great job given their resources, I look forward to more 3D on BBC HD, it is at the moment the only 3D on TV available in Switzerland. As a stereo photographer, I find it a great shame that not more TV channels offer the occasional 3D film or programme.
    In Switzerland and probably in Europe as a whole, I find it a great shame that although a lot of TVs now are 3D, shops selling these don’t even provide glasses to watch any 3D, it seems they are no longer interested in selling 3DTVs. This is possibly the biggest reason why  3D is not selling anymore. That and the lack of content.
    Luckily I can create my own content as a 3D photographer,

    Also, Convincing the public that a one lens camera that is capable of producing 3D photos sequentially that anybody would want to watch is missing the point. I think they are very naive to think that people want view distorted 3D panoramas on a 3DTV, Sequential shots are not satisfactory, they are not the future. Only a two-lens camera will take synchronised 3D photos, the Fujifilm W3 for example.