July 6, 2010 – The momentum behind 3D in TV and other device tableaus is building faster than seemed likely just a few months ago thanks to technology innovations that promise a more viewer-friendly experience and lower costs of production.
One key factor behind the accelerating pace is growing acceptance of hybrid production techniques combining 3D videography with live 2D-to-3D conversion, which means lower costs and better viewing experiences in 3D coverage of live sports events. This technology is getting factored into plans for several events on the near-term horizon, including NASCAR races, baseball’s All-Star game and Yes Network’s broadcasts of Yankee games via DirecTV.
Also contributing to optimism that the 3D experience will influence consumer demand for the 3D experience sooner than later are the accelerating pace of 3D TV set rollouts on what promises to be a descending cost curve and rapid improvements in technology supporting viewing of content without 3D glasses on handhelds, tablets and small gaming devices and, eventually, large-screen TVs.
For example, at the recent E3 video game convention in Los Angeles Nintendo demonstrated glasses-free display capabilities on the forthcoming 3D version of its DS handheld game system. Practical approaches to no-glasses experience are also showing up in prototype demos of large-screen techniques from Toshiba, Microsoft and others.
Anticipating that the ramp-up to significant audiences for 3D content will happen quickly may seem farfetched. Just 2.7 percent of new TVs purchased by U.S. households in 2010 will be TV capable, bringing the total of 3D-enabled households to 20 million, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. IMS Research says that, worldwide, just six million 3D sets will ship in 2010.
Moreover, the average price premium for a 3D set over an HD set of comparable size is running at 34 percent, according to Pietro Macchierella, research analyst at Parks Associates. And, he adds, recent surveys by Parks indicate just 13 percent of adults in U.S. broadband households were aware of 3DTV as of the second quarter, marking a statistically insignificant change from awareness six months earlier.
But, interestingly, consumer intention to purchase 3D TV sets, at 8-10 percent of the broadband household market, is closely tracking awareness, which contrasts with high awareness but low intent to purchase when it comes to assessing Blu-ray market potential, Macchierella notes. “Usually there’s a big gap between consumer awareness and intent to purchase at this stage of a new technology introduction,” he says. “It’s a very different case with 3DTV.”
New 3D TV Set Projections
Unlike HD, where content in the early days was practically non-existent, 3D is getting mass market exposure through theatrical releases, whetting appetites for similar experiences in the home once people become aware that 3D TVs are available. IMS Research predicts that over 218 million 3D TV sets will ship cumulatively from 2010 to 2015.
In a recently published study IMS Research identifies popularity of 3D theatrical releases and intense competition in the home entertainment space as two of the key drivers behind the deployment and aggressive pricing of 3D TV sets. “Within five years, the majority of high-end large-screen TV sets and Blu-ray disc players are likely to offer 3D capability,” says Anna Hunt, who authored the new IMS report on 3D.
“The price premium of 3D models in these markets over similar 2D products is expected to diminish quickly,” Hunt says. “Without a significant price premium, consumers are likely to future proof their purchases by opting for devices with 3D.”
There are now 25 models on the market with screen sizes of 46 and 50 inches and 24 with screens 60 inches or larger, Macchierella says. With costs of provisioning sets for 3D running at just 15 percent over average set costs, there’s plenty of room for price cutting, he notes. Indeed, Samsung, taking an aggressive approach to driving penetration, has already set its prices for 3D sets at very low premiums, notes Dan Schinasi, senior marketing manager for HDTV product planning at Samsung’s Visual Display Product Group.
And all of that company’s sets support the active, full-resolution display technique that requires electronic control over the on-off mechanisms in shutter glasses, which adds costs compared to the passive Polaroid style of stereoscopic display. “We think the active display produces a much better experience,” Schinasi says.
Asked at the recent Consumer Electronics Association LineShow in New York where they thought 3DTV would be in five years, Schinasi and executives from Sony and DreamWorks had similar responses. “Within three to five years I believe there will be 100 percent adoption,” Schinasi said.
“I think it will be pervasive in five years,” agreed John Batter, co-president of production at DreamWorks Animation. “3D will be the primary form of visual consumption from handhelds to everything else.” Alec Shapiro, senior vice president for Sony Broadcast and Production System, said 3D would be a “mature market” by that time.
Improving Production Efficiencies
Wide availability of content, which requires cost-effective production, will, of course, be crucial to fulfilling such predictions. While there is a strong debate among production professionals about the merits of using 2D-to-3D conversion processes in creating movies, the topic is less contentious when it comes to TV production. Even the Hollywood purists have had to give some ground on the need to film every frame of a motion picture in “native 3D,” thanks to the box office success of “Alice in Wonderland,” a 3D hit topping $1 billion in first-run receipts that was shot entirely in 2D.
“Alice” producers, as quoted by various production technology publications, believe filming in 2D gave them greater flexibility to do things the way they’re accustomed to doing them without sacrificing quality. Filming in 3D, using much more cumbersome cameras that take a three-man crew to manipulate, imposes barriers on shot angles and fast action coverage, they assert.
But the conversion processes, relying on manual manipulation of pixel blocks on a frame-by-frame basis, costs anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 per minute, and, of course, can’t be done in real time. Yet the concerns that prompted “Alice” producers to employ 2D filming are even more crucial to coverage of live-action sports, where cameras must spontaneously respond to action, often from positions on or near the field that are not able to accommodate the big 3D camera rigs.
“Live production is very challenging,” says Sony’s Shapiro. “3D requires a separate production truck. Broadcast camera angles are different. But production processes are evolving, and cameras are becoming smaller. We’ll see a lot more equipment coming onto the market over the next year.”
The need for sustaining the action and multi-angle coverage sports viewers are accustomed to combined with the real-time and low cost requirements of TV production have made live sports broadcasts a prime target for the 2D-to-3D conversion technology developed by HDlogix, says Simon Tidnam, vice president of marketing for the firm. As previously reported (November, p. 8), HDlogix performs real-time conversion via high-power computer processors that execute on its proprietary algorithms to position images in the display much as they would be if they were originated via 3D cameras.
“We’re applying a very powerful super computer to convert the feed from an existing HD camera and aesthetically generate a left eye and a right eye image,” Tidnam explains. “And we’re doing that by analyzing every individual frame, and within each frame we’re looking at the discrete pixels, what they’re doing, where they’re going, how fast they’re going to that new place.
“We’re also comparing where they are in that frame versus where they were in the preceding five or six frames,” he continues. “So finally we put all that information together and that enables us to build a depth map, and from there we can calculate the geometry of the scene and give you a 3D experience.”
Automation not only allows all this to be done in real time; it cuts costs to where the HDlogix conversion process runs about 10 percent of the costs for the manual processes, Tidnam says. But he stresses the goal isn’t to supplant the native 3D process but rather to supplement it in ways that allow programmers to retain the multi-camera fast-action coverage viewers are accustomed to while achieving the highest-quality 3D experience.
“There are some very good 3D companies doing live capture, but it’s expensive and complicated, and there are areas where they simply can’t fit a 3D rig,” he says. “We had an opportunity to do some testing with Fox Sports down at the Daytona 500, and that’s a great example of where you might have some issues fitting in a 3D rig.
“For instance burying one in the track would be quite difficult. Putting one on the side of the track is also a challenge. The cars that have cameras in them have three cameras. There’s no room for 3D rigs.” Imagine, he adds, the costs of losing 3D cameras, at a few hundred grand each, with every car crash.
“Those are perfect examples of places where you can supplement a native shoot with a lot of camera angles that are being converted from the existing 2D feed into 3D,” he says. “And the nice thing is we just plug into your existing infrastructure anyway. You don’t have to change anything on those cameras. There’s no retrofitting of the camera in any way.”
Other than Fox, Tidnam declines to say which broadcasters HDlogix is working with for upcoming events, but he makes clear announcements are imminent. The company is spending about 70 percent of its effort on live sports but is also talking with programmers and studios about helping with other types of 3D programming production as well as the possibilities of converting already existing 2D movies and programming to 3D.
Such discussions are focused on content owners not on distributors. “We want to be at the top of the food chain before the signal has gone through any of the encoding, decoding, compression and decompression,” he says. “We’re really trying to work with the content owners and have them handle the relationships with the distributors. We feel that we fit into the actual live production piece and give them the capability to then bring a richer product to distribution.”
As for converting pre-existing content, “there is an immense amount of interest from the Hollywood community where they’re desperate to get more 3D product out there,” Tidnam says.
“You have a lot of people who are quite curious to see what John Wayne looks like in 3D. They didn’t expect to see it, and, now, here it is.”
But these are early days where studios and others looking at converting old stock to 3D are still weighing how much they can do with the lower-cost automation process and how much needs to be done manually. “They look at us and say that could be a piece of the puzzle in post production and maybe that shortens the cycle for getting convent converted,” Tidnam says. “I think there’s a range of opinion about whether it gets me 80 percent of the way there or does it get me 100 percent or is it something less?”
The Glasses-Free Factor
Another, longer range development that promises to push 3D to the ubiquitous saturation levels envisioned by the executives from Samsung, Sony and DreamWorks is the effort to do away with glasses altogether. Nintendo isn’t the only supplier wowing observers with demos of technology that enables a quality, no-glasses 3D experience.
For example, CubicVue, a startup that was on hand at the CEA New York event, demonstrated how a light-filtering transparent panel thin enough to be used on touch screens can support a 3D experience on handhelds and tablet screens. The startlingly realistic imagery, which holds across a wide viewing angle but requires the viewer to remain about 12 inches from the screen, can consist of new 3D material shot to the company’s specifications or 3D material from other sources that has been specially processed through the CubicVue tool kit using standard graphics engines.
CubicVue COO Edward Miller says that, unlike other overlay panels supporting no-glasses 3D, his firm’s technique provides a full resolution picture to each eye. “We’re not delivering half resolution to each eye, which means we’re avoiding artifacts and quality issues you’ll see in other methods,” Miller says.
CubicVue is positioning its thin panels as separate units to be attached to existing devices, although they could be built into the displays, with the idea that users will have access to content specifically developed for use with the panel. The company says it is targeting panels for use with Apple iPhones and iPods, the Microsoft Zune and Sony’s PlayStation Portable.
Sharp is another developer of thin-panel 3D technology, which uses filters to generate differently timed images from interlaced frames for each eye. Reportedly, the Sharp panel will be embedded into the 3D version of Nintendo’s DS gaming device, due out in 2011. “I was at E3 and saw the Nintendo 3DS,” says HDlogix’ Tidnam. “It was very impressive, but, at this point this is only possible with portable devices.” So far, Hitcahi appears to be the only manufacturer selling a 3D-enabled smart phone, now available in Japan.
Until now, the only no-glasses large-screen 3D displays have required viewers to remain precisely in the center point of the viewing space, with the result that only one very stationary individual can have the 3D experience at any one time. But solutions are entering the marketplace at the prototype stage that purport to make glasses-free viewing more feasible on larger LCD screens.
For example, Tohiba’s Mobile Display division has built a 21-inch auto-stereoscopic high-definition display prototype based on the same type of filtering technology used by Sharp that supports a 30-degree viewing angle (15 degrees in either direction from direct center view).
Sunny Ocean Studio, a Singapore company, has developed a panel that can be fitted to large displays to deliver the stereoscopic 3D images to 64 different positions, allowing more than one viewer to view the picture from many different positions. Sunny Ocean hopes to sell the panel to display manufacturers.
Another approach followed by some developers uses infrared cameras to track viewers’ eyes so that lenticular lenses, which consist of an array of magnifying lenses that convey different images to different viewing angles, can direct the stereoscopic feeds to wherever the user is positioned. Most of these techniques only support one user at a time, but Microsoft has demonstrated a special lens design that allows the system to support delivery of the 3D images to two viewers at once, albeit over a total viewing angle of just 20 degrees.
Opinions vary as to when these more exotic, large-screen solutions will actually become commercially available to the point that the need for glasses is largely eliminated, but most observers believe we’ll be using glasses for 3D on TV sets for some time to come. Says David Chechelashvili, head of gaming and retail at 3D glasses manufacturer XpanD: “We will be able to watch without glasses. But that’s at least ten years away.”
But, Chechelashvili adds, “We’re seeing glasses-free displays on cell phones and PDAs today. These are very impressive.”
Thus, it would seem, the glasses-free 3D viewing experience is about to move into the mainstream, potentially bringing with it a faster penetration of 3D into entertainment consumption beyond the theater than would be the case with TV set usage alone. This, in turn, could have a significant impact not only on demand for TV sets that can extend that 3D viewing experience to larger screens, albeit with glasses, but also on the pace at which content developers devote time and money to creating 3D content.