Football could score a winning goal for 3D TV

As broadcasters and manufacturers look to capitalise on the development of 3D television, the beautiful game is being seen by many here as a key player.

The latest craze for 3D film and television might have been brought to the world by the big, blue aliens with remarkable athletic powers in the blockbuster movie Avatar, but the technology's staying power is likely to be up to a more earthly kind of athlete - footballers.

Sky TV threw down the gauntlet last month when it aired the world's first live 3D broadcast of "the beautiful game", the English Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Emirates Stadium. The channel could have picked a safer option to promote the 3D channel it plans to launch in April, but it chose the trial-by-fire of the Premier League, a big risk aimed at reaping potentially big rewards. It is technically much more demanding to broadcast live sports events in 3D than films. Early reviews of Sky's efforts were mixed, but that wasn't enough to deter the Middle East from jumping on the bandwagon.

Last month, Al Jazeera, which recently bought the regional rights to broadcast the FIFA World Cup to be held in South Africa, announced that it would broadcast the competition in 3D from its start in June. Like Sky, the channel is using the crown jewel of its sports rights as a lever to try to convince viewers to invest in 3D televisions and take out Al Jazeera World Cup subscriptions. Just in time for last month's announcement, the regional arm of Sony - one of the electronics giants that is betting the most on 3D, having made a deal with FIFA to film up to 25 of the World Cup matches with its 3D cameras - declared it would be selling 3D-enabled televisions and video game consoles in the region this year.

Though the dates for these launches were vague, the message was clear: the Middle East has no intention of being left behind in the 3D revolution. While old assumptions put emerging technologies in the region about five years after they go on sale in the West, the hype surrounding recently unveiled gadgets such as Apple's iPad has shown that this gap is closing. The 3D wave might prove that it will soon cease to exist at all.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Manaf Ahammed, the director of operations at Ten Sports, the sports channel from Taj TV, told Digital Production Middle East magazine that he believes the Middle East should wait until it has high-definition television figured out before it launches into 3D. HD began to trickle into the region last year with the launch of a modest HD package on E-Vision, Etisalat's internet-protocol television service. Abu Dhabi TV, which, like The National, is owned by Abu Dhabi Media Company, has a channel on the service. HD got another push in January, when Orbit Showtime Network announced three channels dedicated to HD on its new platform.

The late arrival of such ventures places the Middle East several years behind more developed markets when it comes to HD. However, being slow to take up HD is not necessarily evidence of being an underdeveloped viewing market. HD's roll-out, globally, was clumsy and pedestrian, and has yet to deliver on its promises of profitability. Television manufacturers began creating standards for HD as early as 2002, before internal rivalries sent them in different directions. The divisions were not resolved until 2008.

Having learned its lesson, the industry worked together to create standards for 3D over 18 months ending last December. Soon afterwards, the flood of industry projections came. Sony led the pack, predicting half of the televisions it sold would be 3D-enabled by 2013 - quite bold considering it is starting from zero. The US-based Consumer Electronics Association predicts 4.3 million 3D TVs will be sold this year. ESPN will begin airing its dedicated 3D sports channel in June, and Discovery, Sony and Imax have formed a partnership to launch a round-the-clock 3D channel. The US-based DirecTV is also in talks to launch a 3D channel.

Some observers worry that 3D might simply be delivering more than viewers are really looking for. The online Journal of Vision, a scientific publication dedicated to all aspects of human sight, recently reported that the unnatural eye movements caused by watching 3D have the potential to cause headaches and nausea. And at least one cultural critic has complained that making films in 3D robs audiences of one of the main things they go to the cinema for - to relax, disengage and "go to another place", ideally one where giant projectiles are not constantly flying towards their heads.

And then there are the odd glasses 3D viewers have to wear. While several companies are working on glasses-free models, at the moment, if you want to get the full effect, you will have to give up at least some of your sartorial dignity. But by far the biggest obstacle to 3D's success is cost. Outfitting your living room in full three-dimensional glory - with a quickly refreshing screen, robust cables for moving big files, surround sound on decent speakers and, of course, those bizarre glasses - can cost upwards of US$4,000 (Dh14,600), according to Business Week magazine, before you even get around to signing up for content.

This is the main reason why tying 3D's roll-out to premium sports is a good idea; people are already accustomed to paying a lot to see sporting events such as the English Premier League and the World Cup. Al Jazeera is betting that people will pay up for 3D television. In last month's announcement, Nasser al Khelaifi, the director general of Al Jazeera Sports, said its new service would be available for a "nominal fee" in addition to its AJ Sports's base subscription fee. Once this door is opened, the possibilities of more fees for more 3D content are endless.

Despite the hurdles, there is good reason to believe 3D will work in the Gulf; the region's oil wealth and strong culture of enthusiasm for technology mean price is less of a problem than it would be in other markets. Add to that the fanatical support for football that permeates this region, and it might just be a winning combination.