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Q&A with Tom Zerega, Magnetic3D

A one-time actor, Zerega is now CEO of Magnetic 3D, which develops 3D displays and players that work without glasses (NEC, Toshiba, and others are partners). The company evolved out of the digital signage market, where Zerega and partner James Zahakos handled display networks for nightclubs.

A one-time actor, Zerega is now CEO of Magnetic 3D, which develops 3D displays and players that work without glasses (NEC, Toshiba, and others are partners). The company evolved out of the digital signage market, where Zerega and partner James Zahakos handled display networks for nightclubs.

PRO AV: Why 3D? What do we need it for?

ZEREGA: I'm sure you're seeing all the stuff in the press about 3D and how it's big for Hollywood. We're talking to advertisers all the time and that's what they're looking for, too. Sure, they can take their poster and put it on an upright display and let it play back. But they want to know how they're going to stand out. And that's where 3D technology comes into play.

And now we can do it in different sizes and places. We're about to do something cool with 57-inch screens outdoors to show how 3D technology can be used not only for indoor digital signage but also for digital out-of-home. That presents an exciting opportunity because you want to capture people's attention when they're out on the street.

PRO AV: But signage like that is something people glance at and walk by and you hope they get the message. Are people supposed to stand in front of a 3D sign to appreciate it? Will they?

ZEREGA: I wouldn't say they're supposed to do it, but they do. If you've got a 2D screen on the street, people are going to look and keep walking. They've got a 2D flat-screen in their house or they can go to Best Buy if they really want one. But they don't have a 3D screen and most of the population probably hasn't seen one.

PRO AV: There are two major flavors of autostereoscopic 3D–lenticular and parallax barrier. Why did you choose the 3D technology you chose?

ZEREGA: 3D barrier technology is like putting a screen door in front of an LCD or plasma. The color tones are off, the screens are not bright because you're knocking out 60 or 70 percent of the light; the viewing zones are [poor] because you're doing this pixel blocking. When we were working with advertisers on our NightVision Network, we knew this technology was limited. Even when you used high definition, you were cutting that high-definition screen down by more than half. Lenticular was an obvious choice.Our screen had to work in ambient light conditions. We had the screens in nightclubs and when clients would come to see them it would be great. The lights are off, people are drinking, it was perfect. But when you bring it in to the brand manager to show him his spot on a screen that can't be seen under a fluorescent light in a conference room, then you're in trouble.

PRO AV: Is your system proprietary?

ZEREGA: That just came up in a meeting today with a company. They're out there using another company's screens and they're concerned they put all this work into building out a network with other screens and they don't know what they'd do with all their content. The way our player works, you can take the content you already created, put it through our content-creation tools, and export it as our MPEG-4 format. It's a standard MPEG-4 format that has our wrapper around it. Then when you go to play it, you just choose which kind of screen to play it on, ours or a competitor's.

PRO AV: What's the price premium of a 3D network over a 2D network?

ZEREGA: It's a loaded question because you have some guys out there running to Best Buy and getting the cheapest monitors they can find. We know it's a big investment for people to get into 3D so all our screens are industrial-grade.

If you took the same kind of industrial LCD monitors and then you chose ours [for 3D], the cost difference is probably about 50 percent. The players and software in both 2D and 3D are on par with each other. So it's the one-time 3D screen cost, but you don't only have to play 3D content. If you're just getting ramped up you can also play your 2D content. We're out there trying to compete with 2D, so we need to be able to play back 2D content with little to no loss of resolution.

PRO AV: Are there other commercial applications for this 3D technology?

ZEREGA: We're working on using this for CAD programs for visualization. You'll be able to take any CAD file and make it interactive. You just hook up your 3D screen to a computer and import the files and view them. So if you're an architect or an engineer, you can really show people what you're talking about and work interactively inside the image.

Where also looking at "advergaming" solutions where not only can you be interactive and control the screen with your hand from 10 feet away, like in Minority Report, but you can also program the screen to have video games on it. So two people can walk up and play paddle ball with each other. It could eventually be used for real gaming, but we expect it to be used for advertising at first.

PRO AV: Where is this technology being used now?

ZEREGA: We've got a client in Mexico using it in a mall. It's also going to be used for digital menu boards and in movie theaters for 3D movie advertising. We have some in casinos in Atlantic City. We also have a couple customers whose business is strictly tradeshow event marketing. Their clients are companies like Johnson & Johnson and Merck. One of them has several 57-inch monitors and they take them out to the shows.

PRO AV: How did you come to head up a technology company?

ZEREGA: I was doing the acting thing for about 15 years, graduated out of the NYU film school and realized it wasn't so easy to become a director. Right off the bat I went out and got involved in pro AV. I was the manager of a studio and doing things like directing events and concerts and really enjoyed doing it. I got really hands-on with AV stuff, so it was a natural fit, and I started reading about digital signage. 3D wasn't a thought at the time, but it was cool stuff, advertising on displays. My partner and I didn't pretend to know anything about it, but we started going to all the shows and joined in the land grab.

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