The Sky 3D television channel will be the first in Europe when it launches in early April, kicking off with live coverage of the Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea. Football will be followed by other sports, movies, entertainment, arts and documentaries later in the year. Initially the Sky 3D channel will be available at no extra cost to customers on premium packages with high-definition, using their existing Sky boxes. They will need a new 3D compatible display and a special pair of dark glasses. The future’s so bright, we’ve gotta wear shades.

The official launch of the Sky 3D service follows match coverage of Arsenal and Manchester United broadcast in January to a limited number of venues. Over a thousand pubs and clubs across the United Kingdom and Ireland have since signed up for Sky 3D, with more expected to join them. They will have some of the first 3D TV screens available in the country, following a deal with manufacturer LG. Sky 3D is also on show at various locations, including the O2 venue in London and other retail sites.

Allowing the public to experience 3DTV will be critical to its future. “With 3D, seeing really is believing,” said Brian Lenz, Sky’s Director of Product Design and TV Product Development. “So it’s great news that over a thousand pubs across country will be able to show the magic of 3D to their customers.”

Sony, Samsung, LG and Panasonic have all confirmed that they will have sets on sale soon. Sky 3D is compatible with these and works with displays that use either passive polarised and active shuttered glasses. The choice is partly a matter of preference. The polarised glasses are cheap and easy to replace, while the active glasses are heavier, relatively expensive and require a small battery to power the liquid crystal lenses that are wirelessly synchronised with the screen.

3DTV sets will be scarce initially and are likely to command a significant price premium, but the actual cost of production is little more than for a conventional high-definition display and in time 3D Ready displays will be widely available and prices will come down. How ready consumers will be to replace their existing flat screens for 3D compatible versions is another matter.

Sky 3D is broadcast using a normal HD broadcast channel, over existing Sky infrastructure. Two separate scenes are captured, corresponding to the images for the left and right eye. These are broadcast side by side in a normal high-definition signal, effectively halving the horizontal resolution. Sky+ HD customers will be able to use their existing set-top box and can record 3D programmes in the normal way.

How the stereoscopic images are presented depends on the display. In a passive system they are displayed so that when viewed through glasses fitted with polarising filters they are split into separate images for the left and right eye. In an active system liquid crystal shutters are synchronised with the screen to present images alternately to each eye.

Gerry O’Sullivan, director of strategic product management at Sky, for the moment at least, is a passionately persuasive and impressively rational advocate for 3D. He understands that vision is a phenomenon of perception that goes beyond simply seeing two slightly different stereo images and that 3D production requires a different approach to direction, opening up new creative opportunities in much the same way as high definition and colour before it.

As part of restructure to create two separate groups for research and development, Gerry will be leaving Sky after over a decade in which he has led developments like the Sky+ digital video recorder and Sky Broadband, together with Steven Nuttall, who led initiatives in online and mobile video.

Sky 3D is an example of how the pay-television operator is continuing to drive developments in British broadcasting, forging ahead of the BBC. It is no accident that the Sky 3D showreel features not only sports but ballerinas from the English National Ballet performing Swan Lake.

Sky believes that like 3D, like HD, will be applicable to many more genres of programming than just sports and movies, bringing a new dimension to natural history and allowing people to watch theatrical productions from the best seat in the house.

There is still a lot to learn about how to shoot and present stereoscopic productions. Certain subjects seem to benefit more, while the effect may be marginal in long shots. On-screen graphics require special attention, while issues such as eyestrain need to be given serious consideration.

3DTV may initially be seen as something of a gimmick and while it is evidently successful in cinemas it is not clear how accepted it will be in the home, beyond special events and early adopters. The usage of television and the social viewing environment within the home are very different to that of the cinema. So long as it is necessary to wear dark glasses to watch 3DTV it will remain a novelty. However, games and adult entertainment are likely to be popular and 3D screens could become a premium feature of hotel rooms.

Amazingly, there has been very little rigorous academic or medical research on the subject. It is not even known how many people can actually perceive stereo vision correctly. Up to one in ten may not, for one reason or another. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some people may experience headaches as a result of processing the conflicting visual depth cues with which they may be presented. It is a field that informitv will continue to follow with interest.

William Cooper of informitv will be speaking on a panel at the MPEG Industry Forum Master Class at the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas and chairing a session at the 3D TV World Forum in London.

Coverage of the match between Manchester United and Chelsea starts at 12.00 noon on Saturday 3 April. The Sky 3D channel will appear in the electronic programme guide before then. To access preview programmes customers will need to call Sky with details of their 3D television to activate the channel. There will be at least a further five Premier League matches shown in 3D before the end of the current football season.