New 2D-to-3D Solution Aims To Fill 3DTV Content Void

Thomas Engdahl, CEO, ADS

Thomas Engdahl, CEO, ADS

August 2, 2011 – Can a very low-cost approach to 2D-to-3D conversion of archived TV programs help build the content foundation many observers believe is essential to breaking the chicken-and-egg syndrome in 3DTV?
Advanced Digital Services, an 18-year-old post-production company, is betting a new conversion platform it’s introducing to the market can make a difference in efforts to persuade consumers to invest in 3D TV sets. “Industry players are missing lucrative revenue opportunities, as 3DTV producers and retailers wait in hopes of a magic bullet that will move 3D beyond a cottage industry,” says Thomas Engdahl, CEO of ADS. “With our new conversion methodology, we are poised to fill this market void.”

ADS has developed a set of proprietary processes distinct from both the real-time 2D-to-3D processes employed with high-end hardware and the manually intensive processes used in conversion of movies shot in 2D to 3D. The former, used in incremental segments of live 3D and other productions, have not gained traction as the sole means of converting a complete program. And while manual processes used by studios have produced box-office successes like the 3D version of Alice in Wonderland, the costs of these frame-by-frame techniques at $60,000-$90,000 per minute or more far exceed what can be paid for converting TV programs.

“We put together software processes and techniques that allow us to do 2D-to-3D conversion for TV on a scene-by-scene basis for between $3,000 and $4,000 per minute,” Engdahl says. “We’re interested in episodic TV rather than films, including the opportunities that extend 3D to tablets, computers and handsets as they come out with support for 3D. Content owners have a wealth of video assets – going back 20 years or even longer – and those assets are likely to fuel new interest in content that otherwise might have been consigned to the vault.”

No one knows, of course, whether an expansion of the content base for 3DTV through conversions of archived TV content will help build consumer demand for 3D. But it appears some programmers are very interested in finding out.

“We have two tests underway with major studios right now which we hope to be able to announce soon,” Engdahl says. “We’re the only ones who’ve passed their technical tests for converting 2D programs to 3D.” ADS has been validated by other studios as well, he adds.

The business case for taking these steps is three-fold, starting with the opportunity to meet demand for 3D content from buyers of 3D TV sets, he says. The market for electronic purchases replacing DVD purchases of popular programs, especially as more 3D-capable Blu-ray players go into households, opens another opportunity to monetize 3D programming. And service providers’ embrace of 3D content for their VOD outlets will provide still another opportunity, he notes.

Engdahl, a former senior vice president at Comcast Media Center with experience in that organization’s early 3DTV endeavors, believes compromises entailed in lowering conversion costs with the ADS technology are not going to detract from viewers’ 3D experience on the small screen. “You can create a really outstanding TV viewing experience using processes that convert 2D to 3D on a scene-by-scene rather than frame-by-frame basis,” he says.

While declining to get too specific about the still unpatented approaches taken by ADS, Engdahl says there are several techniques that can be applied within a set of frames comprising a given scene that, in the aggregate, create a compelling 3D viewing experience. Some of this can be done manually running ADS software on Avid post-production equipment. Some can be done running the software through a conversion box.

In some cases, especially scenes involving foreground motion against static background, simply time shifting the sequence slightly to create stereoscopic streams does the trick, he says. Other scenes, for example large background shots with no significant foreground elements such as a view of stars and nebulae in space, can be rendered effectively using an off-the-shelf conversion box.

“In episodic TV there are a lot of scenes that are repeated in each episode, so you don’t have to go back in and redo those to the same extent as you did on the first pass,” he notes. “That saves a lot of time.”

“The key to doing this is having a very well trained group of stereographers sitting at the edit desk who can quickly make decisions on which processes to use,” Engdahl says. “Our software allows all this to be done minimizing the amount of labor involved.” For example, “the linear time code we use to change settings in conversion boxes is very important in this regard.” Done right, the sequencing can trick the brain into seeing the entire scene, near and far elements alike, in 3D, he says.

Engdahl says ADS can turn around the typical TV episode in four or five days, although a file with very fast scene changes, even one much shorter in duration than a TV show, such as a music video, can take as long as ten days. And there are some scenes or even entire programs where ADS doesn’t recommend conversion.

“The best examples of that are scenes shot with hand cameras with a lot of jiggling and moving in close-up shots,” he says. “We’re willing to tell customers when content they want to convert isn’t suited to conversion.”

Given the fact that TV programs in first-run distribution don’t go to air as soon as they’re produced, it would seem the techniques ADS is marketing could be applied to current programs shot in 2D as well as archived programs. The question is whether this would be a cost-saving practical alternative to mounting a separate 3D camera and production operation.

“That’s a very, very good question,” Engdahl says. “I’m not sure we can answer that right now, given how the 3D camera and production technologies are evolving. The biggest issue right now with 3D cameras is the two lenses don’t always focus on the scene exactly the same way. This is why some people are recording in 2D and then doing the conversion to 3D later.”

While ADS is open to looking at such possibilities, including expediting conversion of old films for TV rather than theatrical viewing, the company will remain focused on converting archived TV content, given the opportunity 3D affords for monetizing this vast trove of largely unused material. The 3D opportunity is especially appealing for more recently archived content, Engdahl says, noting, “Old stuff can be last year’s episodes.”