The Sky 3D channel is currently available to all subscribers on the top-tier, Sky World package, as long as they first purchase a 3D-ready TV set. Sky won't reveal exact viewing or takeup figures for Sky 3D, but Lenz said at an event in London last week that the firm is "very happy" with how the channel is going. According to estimates, around 100,000 3D TV sets will have been sold in the UK by the end of the year, with around 2m being shipped globally. However, the market remains relatively modest and mostly for the early adopters - it seems likely that 3D TV is a few years away from being even close to maturity.
In the meantime, Virgin Media's new digital TV platform powered by US DVR giant TiVo has launched this month, while the BBC-backed IPTV platform YouView will arrive in the first half of next year, bringing video on-demand and web services to Freeview and Freesat. In contrast, Sky's TV platform has a relatively modest VOD offering and limited social or web features on its electronic programme guide (EPG). There is a sense, therefore, that by going head first into the launch of Sky 3D, Sky customers could miss out on other important developments. Lenz promised that Sky "won't be standing still" next year in terms of new launches, but stressed that the firm will only bring things to market when the time is right.
"There are always two dimensions to think of when deciding when to launch something; can you do it, and should you do it?" Lenz said. "The 'when should you do it' should be judged by how well you can meet customer expectations and how well you can market and package the thing. With 3D it works very well because it's about Sky+ HD that we give you anyway. We also believe that it is something that if we didn't move into then it wouldn't take off."
He added: "There are a thousand people rushing into the over-the-top space - there are a hundred people rushing to develop apps and so on. They are all running to a space. So we felt that 3D was something we could develop and market well, while those other things sorted themselves out. It's just about how you choose. Look at Apple, they held off bringing the iPhone to the market for a couple of years. They were really busy selling iPods and MacBooks, so they wanted to create a clear window to say that it's all about the iPhone."
Sky 3D channel director John Cassy said on the eve of Sky 3D's launch that the channel "will totally change the way entertainment is viewed in homes across the country". He also said that Sky 3D will focus on "event TV", giving people the opportunity to "share an incredible visual experience in their home". This Christmas, Sky 3D will give the world 3D TV premiere to James Cameron's blockbuster Avatar, along with 3D documentary Flying Monster, fronted by Sir David Attenborough. Last week, Sky announced another 3D nature film project with Attenborough, this time on the penguins living on the edge of Antarctica. Attenborough was quoted in the press as saying that 3D is great for big events, such as the Royal Wedding or the World Cup, but will never work for "wallpaper" television. This was interpreted as the broadcasting legend doubting the prospects of 3D ever becoming as ubiquitous as standard or high definition viewing.
"I think if you go back and actually watch what he said, that' not actually what he said," said Lenz. "He said that it's about event TV, things that you really want to watch and engage with. That doesn't mean that it will just have to be the Royal Wedding or the World Cup, its just a type of TV. I would agree that it's not for trivia or wallpaper TV. When TV first came out, everybody just sat down and just watched the TV because it was incredible. Eventually, it just became background, but when colour came out everybody again watched those big moments with excitement. He [Attenborough] said that 3D is like that for those moments when you want to sit down and just really watch."
Lenz said that there is limited chance of 3D ever becoming the broadcasting standard in the same way HD has become, meaning viewers should not expect to see 50-odd 3D channels arrive on the Sky platform in the next five years. However, he did say that the satellite broadcaster is not averse to other 3D channels joining Sky 3D in the near future. ESPN currently operates a 3D channel in the US, while Discovery recently secured a UK broadcast licence for Discovery 3D. Lenz said that Sky is not currently in direct carriage talks about taking another 3D channel, but would be prepared to enter commercial negotiations with any interested broadcasters.
"Honestly, we have no problem with other 3D channels. We do not mean to own the 3D space entirely, but we do aim for Sky 3D to be incredible," he said. "We also want the 3D space overall to be much bigger. If there is one thing that we learned from HD is that we couldn't do it on our own. Sky1 HD or Sky Sports HD weren't the only thing that created it [demand for HD]. To give credit where it is due, the BBC and their venture into HD dramatically helped make HD bigger. All those things put together, I think 3D is a similar opportunity."
In September, the BBC ran a historic test of Super Hi-Vision, a new technology developed by Japanese broadcaster NHK that can deliver a picture 16 times sharper than normal HD. The corporation hopes to use the technology for its coverage of the 2012 London Olympics, alongside 3D content. NHK believes that it will be able to start broadcasting in Super HD by 2020, but Lenz said that the technology is "well out there" at the moment. No TV set currently exists that can fully support the 7680x4320 pixel signal, as current 'full HD' sets only display 1920x1080 pixels. Super HD also requires four times as much transmission bandwidth as HD, meaning its a long way off from a UK launch.
"The other challenge about Super HD is that it requires a whole new broadcast infrastructure. The reason 3D is viable right now is because we did not have to create a whole new broadcast infrastructure," said Lenz. "It uses the existing HD box, and that is why we are happy where we are. We think that the Sky+ HD is a great future platform for us, because we can do lots of things on that platform, adding in broadband, plus the more memory and power we have on that box, we can do more things on that box. So we don't really want to get into the business of selling new boxes and putting in new transponders until the time is right. The moment will come, but those are the sort of investments that you put off until it's the right time."