Sky 3D Analysis: Was it finally an either/or scenario between 4K and 3DTV?

On April 24, in a rather quiet and unassuming way, tucked away in a blog post — and certainly a long way from any valedictory headlines — Sky finally put 3DTV out of its misery. “So today we’re announcing the latest development in our plans for 3D,” wrote Luke Bradley-Jones, Brand Director, TV Products. “From June Sky 3D is going fully on demand.”

Thus ends the great experiment in a format that nobody really asked for and, it turned out, not many people wanted when it finally arrived. Sky’s 3D channel will shut down for good, leaving the hardcore 3D viewers at home with a moribund on-demand service that, reading between the lines, seems unlikely to have any new content added in the future. It may not be the final final nail in the coffin of stereo 3D, but for it to rear up again it will have to be resurrected into a wholly new glasses-free body and a lot of people will have to have their experience of it this time round gently erased from their memories.

That Sky persisted on with it for two years after ESPN pulled out of the format is either a credit to its stubbornness or blind faith, you can take your pick, though it rather wisely ended the expense of capturing EPL games in 3D at the close of last season. But then what you have to consider is that in the limited confines of what was at heart a very flawed medium, Sky always did 3D rather well.

Headed up by a very talented technical team and roping in expertise from OB provider Telegenic and specialist production house CAN Communicate, in fact Sky’s 3D was markedly superior to anyone else’s. Indeed, it found itself in the rather invidious position of having to screen other broadcasters content to make up the hours that broke a lot of its own QC rules along the way.

To European eyes it was often close to unusable. There was a powerful Atlantic rift between the US deployment of the technology and the European, with pronounced differences in the way that convergence was treated at the heart of it. The US wanted to be edgy and at the heart of the action; Sky and the rest of Europe was more about the changing views from a succession of really good seats.

Sky gave it the best shot possible. Across the industry many people were guilty of jumping onto the 3D bandwagon before checking that the wheels were put on right, but Sky is one of the organisations that can came out of the whole thing with its dignity intact. Yes, it fell for the hubris of technological determinism, of assuming that just because the technology is there people will want it, but as one of the world’s leading pay-TV broadcasters it has an important role to play in bringing new technologies to market

It was James Cameron at IBC2012 who famously divided the future of the industry into an either/or scenario between 3D and 4K. “We have a bandwidth bottleneck and if we start going to higher spatial resolution it will be at the sacrifice of 3D rollout,” he said. “So I see it as a little bit of an arms race right now.”

The battle has been won but the war — and that arms race — continues, albeit on new fronts whether 4K itself, HDR, high framerate, or with virtual and augmented reality. Indeed, Sky has invested substantial amounts of money in Silicon Valley start-up Jaunt VR already, while a browse of its corporate PR returns an almost scattergun but always significant investment in new technologies and expertise as it continues its efforts to second-guess the broadcasting future.

And in the context of an organisation that is spending over £1bn a year on EPL rights, perhaps taking the odd gamble now and then on a new consumer technology doesn’t seem too outrageous.

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