New developments promising more efficient production, a shift by manufacturers to displays that allow use of low-cost passive glasses and a growing commitment to understanding and doing what it takes to make viewing 3DTV a pleasant experience are moving things in the right direction. But there’s a long way to go.
Experts in the field characterize the euphoric expectations that hit the industry in the wake of the 3DTV ballyhoo at the 2010 CES as a reflection of widespread ignorance about what it really takes to make 3DTV viable for mass consumption. “Whatever gave people the idea this would happen overnight?” asks Steve Schklair, CEO of 3ality Digital, a leading provider of 3D production equipment.
“I’m encouraged by how sales of 3D TV sets are going,” Schklair says. “If you look at the trend from mono to color, it took many years. Look at the shift from SD to HD. We’re still shooting in SD. In the first year there have been millions of 3D TV sets sold. That’s a big deal.”
Interestingly, in the U.K., where BSkyB has been offering a mix of movies, entertainment and sports on a 14-hour daily schedule since October, sales of 3D sets have been brisk. In April, the U.K.’s Daily Mail Reporter noted that one of Britain’s largest outlets, Dixons, said one in three sets it was selling were 3D capable while another outlet, John Lewis, reported 15 percent of sets sold were 3D TVs.
“Some people were over enthusiastic, maybe underestimating work that needs to be done to make this a sustainable business,” says Pierre Routhier, vice president for 3D product strategy and business development at Technicolor. “We’re still in the first phases. We have our first phase of TVs. We’re already starting to see passive TVs, which in my eyes is a good thing. But there’s also a whole infrastructure behind delivering 3D content to the TV that needs to catch up and get up to speed. I think we’re pretty much where we should be at this point.”
The BSkyB Advantage
The ubiquitous presence of a unified, one-entity controlled infrastructure is one big reason 3D has taken off quickly in the U.K., notes Schklair. “Nobody in this country owns the entire industry like BskyB does,” he says. “They don’t have to deal with third-party CPE suppliers. They deliver services to a lot of pubs where the public was able to gain early exposure to 3D.”
The 3D liftoff in the U.S. has been slower in terms of market penetration with another satellite provider, DirecTV, leading the way, albeit with a proportionately much smaller footprint relative to total households. BSkyB is viewed by 10.15 million subscribers or about 40 percent of the U.K. TV household market while DirecTV, with 19.2 million subscribers, has a 17 percent market penetration.
DirecTV features a mix of its own 3D programming in linear and on-demand modes along with 3net, the joint venture of Sony Corporation, Discovery Communications and IMAX, and ESPN’s 3D channel. Among cable MSOs Comcast has taken the most aggressive step with the launch of its own 3D channel, Xfinity 3D, along with ESPN 3D and VOD offerings. Other cable companies are offering 3D movies on demand and ESPN 3D in some markets.
BSkyB’s market presence serves as a filter against the airing of poor quality 3D content, which is of increasing concern as the industry seeks to build an audience for 3DTV worldwide. “BSkyB is one of the first companies to set strict guidelines,” notes Technicolor’s Routhier. “They’re saying, ‘We’re going to be the first to put 3D on the air, but we’re not just going to show anything. We’re going to make sure our customers have a comfortable, pleasant viewing experience.’”
Such guidelines pertain to a complex array of parameters that make the TV display of 3D a much greater challenge than theatrical showings. “It’s in terms of how many pixels out of the screen or inside the screen are allowable; how many pixels of degradation are allowable between left and right, for example, in vertical or rotational alignment; how much difference in color is allowable,” Routhier says. Ensuring a good experience also entails “making sure when you add 3D elements like titles or captions that they’re in the proper 3D space, that they’re not in conflict with our 2D understanding of the scene.”
But even with such guidelines in play, after seven months of 3D operations Sky finds itself responding to complaints of ill effects, according to British press reports. In a story on April 21 headlined “Viewers complain Sky 3D makes them feel sick,” the Daily Mirror said Sky had commissioned a study by Newcastle University to look into claims that some viewers were feeling dizzy and suffering from headaches and double vision after watching 3DTV.
In a statement responding to such reports, Sky said, “We are conducting research into 3D, as we do regularly with our products and services to make sure they best match the demands and behaviours of our customers. The response we’ve had from Sky 3D homes so far has been overwhelmingly positive, but we’re keen to understand how different types of content, the viewing ¬environment and the various 3D TV screens affect the overall experience.”
Learning about Health Issues
Indeed, says Routhier, inquiries into the health effects of viewing 3D are now a key part of the effort to create a solid foundation for 3DTV. “There are lots of studies on the health effects of 3D, which has a lot of people concerned,” he notes. “So it’s good that we have a deep scientific analysis and a breadth of knowledge to reassure not only the early adopters but the second wave of users who might be somewhat reluctant because they heard 3D might be painful or create issues.”
Clearly, there’s a need for more information. Nintendo made headlines last year when it warned that children under six should not use the firm’s new portable 3DS game player. But in early January the American Optometric Association issued a statement saying moderate use of 3DS players by children with normally developing eyesight should not be a problem. Instead, AOA said, parents can learn from a child’s use of the 3DS whether there may be abnormalities in vision development that wouldn’t be picked up by the usual eye tests.
AOA reports that up to 56 percent of the three to nine million people in the U.S. who are living with binocular vision problems could have trouble viewing 3D. As described by AOA, binocular vision is the ability to align and focus both eyes accurately on an object in the real world and then combine the visual images from each eye into a single, clear three-dimensional perception. The organization says symptoms indicating a potential problem viewing images in 3D can vary, but some common symptoms include headaches, blurred vision, nausea and dizziness.
But there’s more to creating a comfortable experience than simply identifying and shielding the relative handful of people who have binocular vision issues from the bad side effects. In general, there’s a wide variation among people as to how their eyes deal with the process of resolving the images from both eyes into a single picture in the mind.
When it comes to how this impacts viewers’ experience of 3D, it turns out that in theatrical films that use stereoscopic imaging to create the 3D illusion about 30 percent of the viewers will say the effect is not strong enough, 30 percent will say it’s too strong and 30 percent will say it’s just right, Routhier says. And five percent are unable to experience the effect under any conditions.
“Natural vision and stereoscopic effects are two different things,” he says. In real life when we look at an object at a certain distance it is seen as one object, but as it gets closer to us the brain stops converging the two eyes’ images and registers the double vision of the object, as when one views a finger with the arm extended and then pulls it in to where’s it’s nearly touching one’s nose. If the 3D picture pushes objects out to where an individual would normally see two images but instead continues to see just one, the disconnect between what should be experienced and what is seen can create eye stress and dizziness.
Another problem occurs with what is known as “retinal rivalry,” where, if anything is out of sync between the stereoscopic images on the screen, the brain will stress out trying to figure out “which information wins,” Routhier says. This was vividly demonstrated in a video shown by Routhier at a recent meeting where the timing in the frame sequence of the two images was just one thirtieth of a second off. The distorted image was painful to watch for more than a few seconds.
Color imbalances, rotational imbalances and depth of field imbalances are other causes for negative effects on viewers. The depth of field problem occurs with the technique used in cinematography to draw the eye to focus on something in the field of vision by making other elements blur. The blurring of both stereoscopic images must be precisely matched to avoid problems.
One of the most difficult issues in making the transition from theatrical 3D to 3DTV results from the fact that the viewer at home is very aware of where the edge of the screen is relative to the rest of the room, whereas in the theater the dark space surrounding the screen makes the edge less prominent. Thus, while the brain can be tricked to think the edge is further out in the theater, allowing images to appear outside the screen boundaries, images appearing outside the perceivable screen edge at home cause the brain to register a mismatch that can produce dizziness or headaches. Getting the convergence between the edge and where the 3D images should be positioned in the field of vision is tricky business, Routhier says.
In March the 36,000-member AOA and the 3D@Home Consortium, a group of more than 45 companies, signed a memorandum of understanding stating their intent to share data and jointly promote vision health utilizing stereoscopic 3D displays. “AOA will be of great assistance to the 3D@Home Consortium in broadening their understanding of the human visual system,” says Dori Carlson, OD, president-elect of the AOA. “We also know that 3D viewing may help discover subtle vision disorders in both children and adults, that, left uncorrected, interfere with the 3D viewing experience, and even result in the ‘3Ds of 3D viewing’—discomfort, dizziness, or lack of depth.”
Rick Dean, chairman of the 3D@Home Consortium and senior vice president of THX, says the consortium is planning to launch a public education plan once it has in hand sufficient “clinical proof” to make the case that 3D viewing is safe. In addition to working with AOA to develop more information, 3D@Home is working with Pacific University in Portland, Ore. to create a lab for investigating causes behind poor viewing experiences.
“There will be a huge campaign to get the facts out, whatever the findings turn out to be,” Dean says. So far, he adds, the consortium’s review of data on 3D viewing from various sources worldwide suggests the experience is completely safe for the vast majority of viewers.
The availability of 3D TV sets that allow viewers to use passive glasses is another development that promises to accelerate market adoption, especially given the aggressive pricing some suppliers have introduced to drive penetration. Vizio, for example, is offering 47-inch passive 3D TV sets at $899 and 42-inch sets at $600, even though the electronics required to support passive glasses are more expensive.
Manufacturers’ first forays into 3D sets relied on active glasses, which made it possible to lower the processing costs on the sets even though the quid pro quo was much higher costs for glasses and a lack of compatibility from one TV set brand to the next. With the volume of 3D set shipments rising, costs are falling from initial levels in the $2,500 range even with the move to more expensive passive sets. Research firm Display Search predicts 3D set sales will hit 18 million worldwide this year and rise to 91 million by 2014.
Dean points out that, with the lower prices, many consumers “are buying flat-panel sets and walking home with 3D sets,” even if they have no interest in the 3D feature. As a result, he notes, the market base for viewing content as 3D programming builds will help the industry get past the chicken-and-egg issue of whether there will be enough 3D-equipped viewers to justify the investments in 3D content by TV networks.
New Production Efficiencies
Meanwhile, the costs of 3D production are falling as ever more technicians acquire the expertise to run the cameras and perform the set-up analysis essential to creating good 3DTV programming. “We’ve been sending trainers to customers worldwide for some time now,” says 3ality’s Steve Schklair. “At the end of the day this is just different production equipment. It’s not that difficult to go from professional 2D to professional 3DTV.”
In large measure, that’s because of advances accomplished by 3ality and other suppliers that have eliminated a lot of the drudgery and guess work associated with setting up 3DTV shoots. “It used to take one guy with a lot of knowledge and a slide rule to do 3D,” Schklair notes. “Now we have the automated tools to analyze all this and show what we’re getting. So the level of special knowledge has gone way down.”
In 3ality’s case, the latest products, introduced this year at the NAB Show, represent what Schklair describes as another major step toward cost reduction in 3DTV production. These include two integrated software solutions for use with the company’s processing units and camera rigs which, in one instance, automatically align the two cameras on a rig along five axes through the entire zoom range at the push of a button and, in the other, automatically control the convergence and interaxial spacing of the cameras without the need for a separate convergence puller at each rig.
The latter solution, called IntelleCam, will cut the number of personnel needed for a shoot by one half or more, Schklair notes. “Since we started in this business, IntelleCam is the one tool that every broadcaster has asked us to develop,” he says. “We estimate this alone will lower the cost of a shoot by 35 percent.”
Other new solutions from 3ality include IntelleScene, which, by managing real-time depth-specific metadata, performs automated management of transitions and scenes in ways that prevent discomfort to viewers; IntelleMatte, a 3D graphics application that automates composite scene depth management by allowing production crews to insert graphics between objects in the foreground and background, and IntelleMotion, which provides real-time motion stabilization to enable use of long lenses to capture motion at great distances.
Technicolor, too, has been sending out trainers to bring production people up to speed on 3DTV, especially as regards the distinctions between shooting for cinema and TV. With all the new tools at hand, there’s still a challenge to getting people to understand what they don’t know and to spend the time acquiring that knowledge, Routhier says.
“We have cinematographers and stereographers who have done cinema for a number of years very successfully, things that looked incredibly great in theaters,” he notes. “But, unfortunately, the viewing environment at home creates different challenges.”
Technicolor is working with these professionals to “sensitize them about why is it their material, which was fine in the theater, is now rejected by broadcasters and help them transition in this medium,” he adds. “I think for this to be a success, it’s a concerted effort. We’re working with broadcasters, with standard organizations and production companies so altogether we raise the awareness of the issues at home.”