Now live on DirecTV: TV's first set of 3D-only HDTV channels

With hordes of folks flocking to movie theaters for Toy Story 3 and other 3D films, DirecTV and its content partner Panasonic have decided that the time is right to bring the TV industry's first suite of dedicated 3D TV channels into living rooms, for home viewing on 3D-enabled HDTVs from all manufacturers.

At a press event in New York City on Thursday, the two companies threw open the switch on a trio of new DirecTV channels, which offer movies, documentaries, sports and other 3D content around the clock, unspoiled by conventional 2D TV fare. DirecTV had already launched ESPN on channel 106 of its satellite-based TV service on June 11.

Beyond the success of 3D movies in theaters, penetration rates of 3D HDTVs into US homes also suggest that the TV market is ready for 3D-only TV channels, said Eisuke Tsuyusaki, chief technology officer at Panasonic, in an interview at the event.

Analyst estimates of the numbers of 3D HDTVs in the US by the end of this year range from one to four million, but DirectTV and Panasonic are predicting total indusry penetration of about two million.

In addition to making it easier for 3D customers to find 3D content, he suggested, the new channels carry the less obvious advantage of preventing confusion among owners of 2D HDTVs, who'll see blurred rather than 3D images if they try to view 3D.

Starting this week on DirecTV, Channel 103 is running pre-existing 3D programs such as Encounter in the Third Dimension and Wild Safari: A South African Adventure, along with new and exclusive original 3D content co-developed by DirecTV and Panasonic, said Steven Roberts, DirecTV's senior VP of new media and development, during another interview.

With additional original DirecTV content now on the way, the opening slate includes Guitar Center Sessions with Peter Gabriel and Jane's Addiction. Also on 103, a channel now known as "n3D powered by Panasonic," DirecTV will offer special events like this weekend's running of the NASCAR Coke Zero 400 road race plus an exclusive nationwide broadcast of Fox Sports' 2010 MLB All-Star Game on July 13.

On Channel 104, DirecTV is now running iMax movies such as Deep Sea 3D on a pre-scheduled, video-on-demand (VoD) basis. Channel 105, on the other hand, is offering downloadable content such as ESPN's coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer matches. (Just in case you don't have a 3D HDTV in your living room yet, Cinedigm separately
announced plans this week
to broadcast the main World Cup matches in 30 movie theaters across the US and Canada.)

For the foreseeable future, though, DirecTV has no plans to try to convert 2D content for use on its 3D channels, Roberts said, explaining that the conversion process can be very time consuming, with results that can be inconsistent in terms of quality.

Why did Panasonic pitch in on the rollout of DirecTV's 3D channels? In addition to helping DirecTV develop the original 3D content, Panasonic makes 3D TV production equipment, Tsuyuzaki acknowledged. "We also want to help educate consumers about what's needed -- and what's not -- for viewing 3D content," he added.

Specifically, DirecTV's 3D fare is viewable on any 3D HDTV that uses stereoscopic glasses, the same type of glasses needed for watching 3D content in theaters, Tsuyuzaki said. "3D TVs that don't require stereoscopic glasses still exist only really in laboratory settings right now," he contended.

You can view the 3D content regardless of whether your 3D TV uses LCD, OLED or plasma technology, or whether the set is from Panasonic or some other manufacturer.

The software upgrade needed for viewing the 3D channels has already been distributed to DirecTV set top boxes in consumers' homes, meaning that you won't need to get a new set top box if you're already a DirecTV subscriber.

DirecTV's new 3DTV channels are available at no extra charge to any DirecTV subscriber who also pays for DirecTV's HD package, said DirecTV's Roberts. However, DirecTV plans to charge about one dollar more for 3D on demand offerings than for 2D VoD content. Consumers also look likely to be charged additional premiums for some special events, although that pricing wasn't initially announced.

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