Will 3D save Blu-ray?

Sony's homevid format finds its elusive advantage

A few weeks back, Apple topper Steven Jobs took a shot at Sony’s Blu-ray Disc format, calling it “a bag of hurt” at a computer confab, and later emailing an Apple customer that “Blu-ray is looking more and more like one of the high-end audio formats that appeared as the successor to the CD — like it will be beaten by Internet downloadable formats.”

Despite Sony’s victory over rival HD-DVD in the format war, Blu-ray has remained a format without a compelling value proposition. It delivers a better picture than DVD, but not dramatically better, and consumers have been moving toward the convenience of streaming rather than the quality of true HD on Blu-ray.

There’s one area, though, where Blu-ray seems to have the edge: stereoscopic 3D. In fact, 3D may put Blu-ray in millions more living rooms — and, in turn, Blu-ray may help drive 3D in the home.

Don Eklund, Sony Pictures’ executive VP for advanced technologies, recalls that during the format war with HD-DVD, critics said Blu-ray was overengineered. Those advanced capabilities, however, have proven essential in giving the format an advantage in 3D homevideo, which requires storing and moving massive amounts of data. Blu-ray does this much better than Web streaming.

A single Blu-ray disc can hold an entire 3D movie at full 1080p HD resolution, and the players can pump that data to the screen with no problem. With Web streaming, the consumer doesn’t need a lot of storage space, but few broadband services have the speed to handle a dual load of 1080p video for the left and right eyes — required for 3D.

Eklund estimates a player must be able to handle 50-55 megabits per second (Mbps) for 3D with full HD for both eyes. An Akamai Technologies study pegged average broadband speed in the U.S. (including consumer, corporate and mobile) at just 3.8 Mbps. AT&T’s DSL maxes out at 24 Mbps.

Ahmad Ouri, chief marketing officer at Technicolor, believes Blu-ray has the edge for the foreseeable future. “It will be very difficult to stream a 50-gigabyte file, even if you have a high-bandwidth pipeline to the home,” he says.

Blu-ray launched in 2006, and the Blu-ray Disc Assn. (BDA) asserts that the format has reached more than 10% penetration, counting set-top players and the PlayStation 3 — ahead of where the DVD rollout was at a similar point in time.

Blu-ray stakeholders tout the format’s image quality and connected features, but Ouri says that “in terms of differentiating features for the consumers, I think definitely it will be 3D” that drives sales.

3D has also given consumer electronics firms, eager to sell 3D flatscreens, a reason to get behind Blu-ray.

“3D will likely become a standard feature on the majority of new HDTVs, and that will certainly support sales of Blu-ray,” says Lexine Wong, senior exec VP of worldwide marketing at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

With 3D cable and satellite still scarce, and terrestrial 3D basically nonexistent, Blu-ray is the most market-ready 3D delivery system available today.

Even with 3D, though, Blu-ray may have a limited window to make inroads. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan calls for a massive increase in Internet bandwidth to the home, enough to make 3D streaming practical, within 10 years.

That plan has driven another group into the 3D Blu-ray camp: broadcasters.

The broadcasting industry isn’t keen to surrender spectrum for wireless broadband — something the FCC plan asks them to do — nor are they eager to use all their bandwidth for 3D TV.

So it’s not surprising that National Assn. of Broadcasters executive VP Dennis Wharton points to Blu-ray, along with pioneering cable ventures, as the methods best poised to bring 3D home.

“Because of the (limited) spectrum (for terrestrial TV), we are going to be watching the cable side before some of our broadcasters make the decision to go the 3D route,” he says. “Maybe we can get 3D through mobile applications. I think it is a little too early to forecast.”

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