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3D: It's No Slam Dunk...Yet

Amid the significant hype surrounding 3D technology, reasonable minds are pondering where it might even succeed--and why. PRO AV columnist Pete Putman has talked it over with industry luminaries. Here's his assessment.

I recently returned from the 2010 hollywood post alliance retreat, which has become one of my annual must-attend technology conferences. Ostensibly, the focus of the retreat is on technologies and processes that affect the production and post-production of movies and TV shows. In reality, the technology demonstrations and papers presented each year directly impact a range of AV markets and industries.

Pete Putnam, CTS, ISF

Pete Putnam, CTS, ISF

The HPA's retreat is where I saw my first 3D camera rigs, watched the first demonstration of Panasonic's Varicam technology, checked out the first wave of reference-quality LCD monitors, and saw amazing presentations of image-blending systems. And much of the technology I've seen has indeed trickled into the pro AV channel--often through the back door known as consumer electronics.

This year, I participated in the retreat's super session, which was called "3D in the Home Is the Answer: What Is the Question?" Speakers included Dr. Martin Banks of the University of California Human Vision Lab, Phil Eisler of nVidia, Walt Husak of Dolby Labs, Hanno Basse of DirecTV, Eisuke Tsuyuzaki of Panasonic, and David Wood of the European Broadcast Union. Wood's presentation, which came last, was titled "Are You Guys Nuts?" Fair question.

The explosion of interest in 3D has been fueled by several factors. First is the nearly 30-percent premium in box office receipts for almost every 3D movie released in the past couple years. Second is the ability of numerous direct-view and projection displays to accommodate the faster refresh rates needed to show active-shutter 3D content.

But most of the momentum has simply been created by TV manufacturers looking for a repeat of the HDTV buying frenzy that characterized the latter part of the past decade. More than a few marketing and sales executives are hoping 3D will provide a new burst of energy to the retail TV market, which is currently experiencing the paradox of increasing sales at ever-lower profit margins.

The Missing Pieces?

What manufacturers and other analysts haven't taken into consideration, however, is that the boom in HDTV sales was driven by four factors that have largely come and gone: the transition from analog to digital TV, from tape-based media to optical media, the roll-out of HDTV programming and channels, and the move from CRT-based imaging to fixed-resolution flat-panel displays.

3D, on the other hand, can't reasonably be expected to pull off a market surge all by itself. And as the HPA presenters demonstrated, there are a lot of hurdles still to overcome. At present, 3D works best in a theater setting, where the screen size, lighting, projection, and eyewear can be controlled for maximum impact. Outside the theater, it's still the wild west.

Consider that there are several ways to present 3D content (autostereoscopic, passive 3D, anaglyph, active shutter) and numerous 3D image sequencing formats (interlaced, frame sequential, left/right, checkerboard, field sequential, frame compatible, and top-bottom). There's a new and required implementation of HDMI 1.4a to transport 3D, yet no clear 3D delivery standards (although there are numerous multiview standards within MPEG and several standards bodies working hard on this issue). Finally, there are still few ready-to-ship 3D TVs and projectors.

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