This post is a response to Stacey Higginbotham’s article on GigaOM entitled Why 3-D TV Technology Is All Hype. In her article she points out that the Electronic Technology Center’s efforts are aimed at testing compatability for content creators, not designing a consumer standard, and without a consumer standard you can’t watch 3D at home. She’s right that more work needs to be done, but she’s missing some of the existing technology and some of the current efforts, that will make 3D in the home a reality. My prediction is that you’ll have viable consumer options for playing 3D movies at home within 18 months. Read on to see where I’m coming from.
First let me say that there is a lot of hype around 3D right now. Hollywood embraces 3D every twenty years or so, but I believe the technology has finally gotten to the point where doing 3D really is feasible for the theater market. I define three key aspects to making 3D feasible:
- The technology has to allow consumers to comfortably watch a full length film
- The technology is priced reasonably enough that it can be deployed and used
- There is a benefit to the film beyond the fact that is in stereoscopic 3D
Several technologies are involved in meeting these goals this time around that weren’t available last time. The first piece of technology is digital cinema. The film industry has been rolling out digital cinema as was to improve the quality of film prints and to reduce the cost of distributing film. The high end projectors that are being installed for digital cinema are also capable of display stereoscopic 3D movies if the theater owners add some additional equipment. Starting with the Disney release of Chicken Little in 3D in 2005, theater owners found that they could charge a premium for watching a film in 3D. Increasing revenue and increasing reasons for audiences to go to the theater are business incentives for studios to make 3D pictures.
In previous incarnations of 3D you would wear a pair of paper glasses with red and cyan filters. That allows only red light to enter one eye and anything but red to enter the other eye. The left and right stereo images are then processed so that one has only its red values, and the other has the green and blue values. Your brain then reassembles the images in to 3D. This process is called anaglyph 3D. The big advantage of anaglyph 3D is that you can display the images using standard film/print technologies. The downside is that it is a really awful 3D image. Creating the image requires throwing away have the information available, and because it isn’t the way your brain is used to seeing 3D it can lead to eye strain and headaches.
The digital cinema systems use a different technology (most commonly based on polarization) to produce stereoscopic 3D. In this case two separate images are displayed at a rate six times the normal film rate. Three of those images are images for the left eye, and three of those images are images for the right eye. That’s called tripple flashing and helps produce better quality images with less flashing. Polarizing filters are attached to a wheel that is synchronized with the projector. Each time a left eye image is display, the wheel applies one polarizing filter, and each time the right eye image is displayed the wheel applies the opposite polarizing filter. The glasses you wear match those filters and make sure the correct image enters the correct eye. Unlike anaglyph 3D these images are full color and have a high refresh rate which makes them much more comfortable for the viewer to watch. The downside is additional cost because more hardware and a silver screen are required by the theater owners.
I said the most common solution is polarization. That is the technology used by RealD who has deployed the most theater systems. Dolby has a different technology based on color bands, but the end result is basically the same for the consumer.
I mentioned that the roll out of digital cinema is being driven by studios wanting to lower the cost of distributing prints. I also mentioned that theater owners are finding that they can charge a premium for presenting 3D. That helps cover the cost of the stereoscopic 3D display system. Finally, the studios need a way to make 3D movies in a cost effective manner. In the past every 3D movie created their own 3D equipment which is expensive and time consuming. New technologies (including systems my company builds) are making that process easier. Digital acquision, on set previewing, and commercially available solutions are lowering the barriers to entry. When you place all these factors together you get a reasonable economic model for 3D feature film production.
We’ve covered the first and second criteria that the films are comfortable to watch and that there is economic model for the technologies deployment. That leaves the final criteria that there is some additional value beyond just being a 3D movie for doing it. That’s the one that I don’t believe is handling very well yet, but there’s an economic reason for that, and the situation is improving.
Almost every major theatically released stereoscopic film released to date has focused on the 3D as a feature of the film. These films where spears poke in your face, and things jump out of the screen at you, are designed to be more like theme park rides than traditional movies. The viewer goes to these films primarily to have the 3D expereince and the story is primarily a path to lead you between the 3D events. That can be fun, and there is a place for that, but that’s not focusing on the story which is the value of good movies.
This is somewhat driven by the encomics of 3D films today. There are only about 1000 3D capable theaters in the US. Those theaters get to charge a premium for showing 3D films, but they need to have a lot more of their seats filled to make the same revenue as a 2D film showing in many more theaters. Therefore they really need to have an “in your face” 3D experience so that the 3D viewers get their monies worth. Unfortunately, every time something pops in your face, it takes you out of the story. The object is no longer in the scene but instead in the theater. Instead of just watching the story the viewer is waving their arms trying to touch the object. It’s a fun theme park ride, but not a narrative film.
That situation is going to change. By the end of next year there should be between 3500 and 5000 3D theaters (depending on who you ask and how well the roll out goes). That is going to allow 3D films to reach a wider audience, fewer of whom will be there only for the 3D theme park ride. The novelty will wear off and more 3D films will have rely on story to effectively fill the theaters.
This is very much akin to the early days of special effects. Every effects film made effects the central focus of the film, and the story guided you between the explosions, car chases, and aliens. Although those sorts of films still show up every summer, almost every film today has some special effects and you barely notice. They are just another tool used to tell the story and the same thing will eventually happen with 3D films.
When stereoscopic 3D is designed to keep the 3D effect near the screen plane and not in your face, the 3D experience changes from being a theme park ride to being immersive. You feel like you’re in the movie watching it as a spectator. It adds to the enjoyment of the story just as surround audio does. U2-3D and the Hanna Montana concert both showed that. Viewers felt like they were in the audience of the concert.
Because the technology is so new, cinematographers are learning what works and what doesn’t in 3D films. They are learning to be carefully about the transitions between shots where drastic convergence changes can cause eye strain. They are learning how to effectively use the new technology. They are learning a new language for stereoscopic film making. It’s another transition in the industry, just as adding sound, adding color, or adding surround sound took additional education, so will making good stereoscopic 3D. Eventually stereoscopic 3D should become a standard tool available for making any film.
The bottom line, and getting back to 3-D TVs, is that Hollywood is making a big investment in stereoscopic 3D and that is going to drive better content. As more of that content is produced more people will want to watch it at home. Manufacturers will finally have content to show on their 3D televisions, and a reason to produce them more widely.
That was a long setup to why 3D TV is coming. Now let’s address the specific items that Stacey references in her article.
The Entertainment Technology Center has always been an interoperability center for studios and content creators. They are most well known for managing the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI), which standardized how content players and projectors work to display content in a digital cinema. It brought together studios and system vendors and allowed them to agree on what they needed. That effort was a sucess in the US and that’s part of what has allowed digital cinema to be rolled out to theaters today. It’s no surprise that they are continuing that roll in defining a stereoscopic 3D system. The ETC has never been involved with consumer devices.
There are several ad-hoc efforts to provide 3-D television for the home. Texas Intstructments, the makers of the DLP chips, added stereoscopic 3-D as part of their features last year. Every rear projection DLP set made in 2007 or later is 3-D capable. There’s also a company called dynamic digital depth that has been working with consumer electronics vendors to incorporate their 3-D technology in consumer devices. They also sell a set of 3D glasses for use with various 3D capable televisions. Samsung has mad a major effort to create 3-D capable displays, both using TI DLPs in their rear projection TVs and by adding 3-D support to some of their plasma televisions. These efforts allow you to buy a 3D capable and make it work, but without a standard it is a difficult process.
These sets are 3D capable, but what does that really mean? 3D capable means that the set can display stereoscopic 3D images. In most cases that means you connect some additional hardware, you wear active shutter 3D glasses, and if you feed your display properly formatted 3D content, it can display stereoscopic 3D. That’s all well and good, but here’s the steps a consumer has to do to watch 3D:
- Buy a 3D capable TV
- Buy a set of 3D glasses and their controller
- Connect a PC to the TV
- Buy and load 3D software to run on the PC
- Buy properly formatted 3D content to run on the PC
- Put on the glasses
- Run the software
- Enjoy the content
Yeah, right. There’s no way the typical consumer is going to handle that. To make matters worse, there are several different ways that content can be encoded to work with the set. Right now that means you need some specialized software or hardware to format the content for the display. Not only that, this only works for things like DVDs, it doesn’t help it all for broadcast content.
What we’d really like is for there to be a standard for the distribution of 3D content. Then I could put a 3D disc in my blue ray player and have 3D content on the screen. I’d like to turn on my cable/satellite/over the air tuner and pick a 3D channel and watch that as well.
Defining that standard is the work of SMPTE. In fact, they put a recent press release that they have created a task force to standardize stereoscopic 3-D Mastering for Home Display. The results of that task force should be standardization needed to make 3D successful in the home. SMPTE does take a while to create standards. Once that’s ready the blue ray players, televisions, and cable receivers will need to support it. My guess is that changes required will be minimal, and that the formats will mostly match what is happening ad-hoc today. For those of us with a 3D capable set that probably means buying a 3D converter box to connect to our television.
With the work of SMPTE and the ramp up in Hollywood I look forward to consumer 3D in the home to be feasible in the next 18 months. I’d say the hype is appropriate. The results will be amazing. It will just take some time for the content creators, the distribution systems, and the consumer electronics manufacturers to all get on the same page. Tim Sassoon, an expert in stereoscopic 3D in Hollywood, was recently asked “What films would be better without 3D?”, his response was “Anything that would better in real life with one eye closed.” Stereocopic 3D is a more natural and immersive way to view a scene and will be used to create more compelling content in the theaters and the home in the not to distant future.