Next year will usher in the latest development in home entertainment, as leading players invest in bringing three-dimensional broadcast to viewers.
Last week, Sony announced it will introduce a 3D-compatible Bravia television set in 2010, while Sky plans to launch the UK's first 3D TV channel.
The part to be played by stereoscopy, or three-dimensional imagery, in the future of broadcasting will be as significant as high-definition's contribution today. And the infinite possibilities for 3D advertising as yet lie unexplored.
Sarah Carroll, director at Futuresource Consulting, says: "Consumers are starting to experience the new wave of 3D technologies at the cinema and there will soon be a groundswell of demand for 3D within the home.This will translate into commercial success within three to five years."
Experiments with the third dimension are under way around the world. Japanese broadcaster NHK has been transmitting short daily segments of 3D content since early 2008 and France Telecom is looking to launch a 3D sports channel on its cable network Orange.
In the US, Fox Sports and Turner Sports have used cinema screens for 3D events and NBC aired a DreamWorks trailer for the film Monsters vs Aliens during this year's Super Bowl coverage, requiring the distribution of 150 million pairs of special glasses.
In the UK, Channel 4 will air a week of 3D documentaries this autumn, ITV is planning a stereo production of the comedy Headcases and the BBC is investigating 3D TV systems that will work with any size display, in a project backed by fellow EU broadcasters.
This activity demonstrates that attention has expanded beyond movies and sports to arts, studio-based shows, animation and factual programming. More significantly, the experiments are part of a process where the broadcast community is moving towards a standardised production, transmission and reception format.
Free-to-air broadcasters are keen to ensure 3D signals can be delivered alongside normal HD versions of the picture to ensure universal availability and keep bandwidth costs to a minimum.
Sky's announcement is prompted by a desire to be seen as a technological innovator, but also to give it influence with industry body the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, so Sky's 3D system is adopted on a wide scale.
The broadcaster can already deliver 3D to Sky+ HD boxes with minimal cost to itself - although consumers will still need to buy new £3,000 sets - and has concluded that a pre-emptive strike is better than waiting for universal standards that would suit its free-to-air competitors.
When the standards for the new technology are in place, media analyst Screen Digest predicts global sales of 3D sets will increase from the current 3% to more than 30% by 2015.
Analyst Tom Morrod says: "If the market is to expand from its niche position, then TV sets and 3D reception devices need to be open to standardised 3D services, just as there is an agreed high-definition standard and no proprietary HD service. Sky might hope that being first means the technology it deploys will gain traction in the global standardisation process, or at least be compliant with future standards."
Hollywood's enthusiasm for 3D is obvious and movie-goers are prepared to pay a premium to visit 3D-equipped theatres, but does this demand necessarily translate to TV? Sky seems likely to charge top-up subscription fees for 3D services, but began discussing advertising potential with media buyers as early as last November.
Chris Locke, trading director at VivaKi, says: "3D does seem the next step after HD, but our perception is that production is expensive and the platform limited at launch. We are talking to technology clients such as Samsung, BlackBerry and other brands, where immersive sight and motion could make a strong brand connection."
Andy Zonfrillo, exchange director at Mindshare, observes that since HD commercials are still the exception, thoughts of 3D spots are wildly premature. "Sky's announcement is largely about it continuing to offer its customers something different," he says. "From an advertising perspective, I don't expect 3D services will have much traction because the audience capable of viewing the service will, initially anyway, be tiny."
However, influential UK body the Digital TV Group says more than half its members believe 3DTV could represent a premium advertising proposition for commercial broadcasters and that it will become mass entertainment within five years.
This presupposes consumers will buy 3D-ready TVs, just as HD-ready sets were used to seed the high-definition market five years ago.
Sky's director of strategic product development, Gerry O'Sullivan, says: "With HD there were a lot of sceptics early on, and those sceptics were proved wrong. 3D TV is following the same path."
Both 3D console gaming and ratification of a 3D Blu-ray disc format will add vital impetus to the 3D market, giving audiences with access to 3D TV sets the chance to view stereo movies in the home.
Not coincidentally, News Corp-owned Twentieth Century Fox, producer of the much-anticipated 3D movie Avatar, will be able to transmit movies direct to Sky+ HD households, regardless of whether they own a Blu-ray player.
Production costs for 3D broadcast are currently between 30% and 50% more than HD budgets. But as more 3D camera rigs and specialist stereographers become available and more content is commissioned, costs will fall.
In the interim, budgets can be trimmed by converting 2D content into 3D, a process that leading 3D production teams Inition and Can Communicate report are increasingly in demand.
The wave of interest in 3D has even spurred interest in online 3D, as illustrated by the Royal Mail's recent 3D anaglyph campaign created by Film38, Proximity London and Inition. Martin Bowley, managing director of Digital Cinema Media, says: "Early 3D advertisers have the advantage of novelty and media attention."
The good news is that, as daunting as 3D production might appear, the workflow, technology and creative decision-making is not far removed from that of conventional shoots. But the concern, voiced by the field's few practitioners, is that stereoscopy requires an understanding that can only be gained through experience. "Each step in the 3D production chain needs rethinking," says Inition director Andy Millns.
For instance, 3D productions make far more comfortable viewing if cutting between shots is reduced considerably. As a result, some suggest new ad formats may develop. Duncan Humphreys, partner at Can Communicate, says: "The rapid-fire 30-second spot is not conducive to 3D. Longer-length ads, more like short films of three to five minutes, may be more appropriate."
The buzz around 3D TV is set to increase ahead of the launch of Sky's channel and Sony's TV set in 2010, but with theatrical 3D campaigns as yet barely on media agencies' radars, the days of wholesale 3D TV ads are some way off.
Tom Eslinger, worldwide creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi's interactive and emerging media division, says 3D TV has been talked about for ages and is finally getting to the point of affordability. He adds: "As ever, the idea is paramount and there has to be a reason for doing 3D.
"I'm less interested in simply creating a 3D model of a car or a Coke can than I am in getting audiences to interact with the object in some way. There are exciting opportunities for brand immersion, but we are just taking our first steps."
3D TV Need to know
Who is launching 3D TV?
BSkyB will launch a 3D channel in 2010. All 1.3 million Sky+ HD households will be capable of receiving the service, but only consumers with 3D TV-enabled sets from Sony, Hyundai or JVC, which come with special glasses, will be able to view it.
How is 3D produced?
Stereoscopic broadcast is produced using cameras rigged with twin lenses that produce slightly different images for left and right eyes. The ocular distance between the lenses is largely what determines the depth effect of a shot and alignment at the point of capture is critical.
How is 3DTV transmitted?
In Sky's model, the left and right images are squeezed side by side into a single HD frame and transmitted by satellite via Sky+ HD boxes to selected 3D-ready TVs, where the images are re-interlaced and viewed with special glasses.
Brian Lenz, head of product design and innovation at BSkyB, says: "In theory, half the pixels are thrown away for each eye, but, in practice, the resolution loss is negligible, because the viewer's brain is merging the two different perspectives, using depth cues, to create the 3D picture. The viewing plane is surprisingly wide in the living room: 20 degrees vertically and 45 degrees left and right."
Polarising glasses are used to help direct the correct left or right full-colour on-screen image to the corresponding eye.
Is this the only transmission method?
There are multiple variants, hence the call for industry-wide standardisation, not least to head off a damaging format war. The BBC and ITV favour an implementation that uses the full resolution for both eyes and allows existing HD viewers to see the same pictures in 3D. However, Sky's 3D channel would be unsuitable for viewers not wearing special glasses.
What about anaglyph?
Anaglyph is an old-fashioned form of 3D and is the only system compatible with existing TV displays. Images comprise two colour layers superimposed and viewable through specs with coloured lenses. Channel 4's autumn season will include 3D footage of the Queen's coronation and a Derren Brown 3D spectacular. Viewers will need to wear ColorCode 3D glasses, to be distributed free in a deal with Sainsbury's.
3D cinema Advertisers vote with their wallets
The rollout of digital cinema screens and the increasing number of 3D film releases is starting to unleash the theatrical 3D advertising market.
The acceleration of 3D releases from 20 in 2009 to more than 30 in 2010 - and the fact that 3D films gross 2.9 times more than 2D films at the box office - has convinced the cinema industry to invest the £50,000 required to upgrade each screen to digital 3D.
James Cameron's science fiction epic Avatar, scheduled for release in December, has been heralded as a benchmark for 3D, while the next James Bond and Harry Potter films are tipped to feature 3D technology.
The UK is expected to have 450 operational 3D screens by the end of the year, representing 10% of its capacity, rising to 20% by 2014. Charlotte Jones, analyst at Screen Digest, says: "Growth across the UK will be driven by strong competition between Odeon, Vue and Cineworld."
Red Bull pioneered 3D cinema ads with an anaglyph promo in 2007 and other brands are following suit.
An early example is the interactive game Asteroid Storm for O2, created by ZenithOptimedia, with VCCP and Agency Republic, which sits within Pearl & Dean's first 3D-only trailer reel.
The game, which audiences control by waving their hands in the air, launched in 20 Vue cinemas on 3 July and is aired before family friendly movies in 3D such as Ice Age 3, Up and Toy Story 3D.
Pearl & Dean also worked with Nickelodeon on a 3D promotion distributed over 70 screens.
Mike Hope-Milne, the cinema firm's enterprise director, says: "We are getting a lot of engagement from advertisers and this time they are voting with their wallets."
Rival cinema sales house Digital Cinema Media has yet to take a 3D booking, but has embarked on a roadshow extolling the virtues of 3D to advertisers.
Managing director Martin Bowley says: "3D will have the same impact on advertising as the shift from black and white to colour. But it won't be for everyone. Retail brands are less likely to use 3D than technology brands, while automotive ads will be a key category."