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Seeing 3D through rose-tinted glasses

by Marie Bloomfield

One session at last month's Screen Digest PEVE Digital Entertainment conference focused on industry efforts to enable distribution of 3D content to the home. The event highlighted the industry tensions around competing display technologies and standardisation of content delivery formats for 3D, but nevertheless offered a compelling business case for 3D as the next step in home entertainment.

The area that remains a little greyer is the extent to which consumers will be interested in this proposition. 3D certainly has its naysayers-critical of a medium that requires you to wear special glasses, they dismiss it as a novelty. Admittedly, such a peripheral is not ideal, particularly if you already wear prescription glasses. Wearing another pair of glasses over these is a bit cumbersome and can detract from the experience. That said, demonstrations by the major consumer electronics manufacturers at recent industry events show that the technology being readied is achieving a wow-factor that could challenge the cynics.

Early signs are that emerging 3D technology will be supported by compelling content. The latest wave of 3D movies has generally avoided the visual gimmicks associated with 3D in favour of a more immersive experience. To paraphrase John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation and executive producer of Disney's latest 3D movie Bolt, this new aesthetic is less about objects flying out of the screen, more about enhancing the sense of depth and enveloping the audience in the action. Filmmakers are developing a distinct visual vocabulary for 3D, characterised by a less imposing style of editing. These longer shots enable the viewer to explore the image, enhancing the sensory experience created by the 3D effect.

In this respect, 3D would arguably lend as much to a sweeping vista as it would to an asteroid shower; its potential extends beyond the sci-fi, animation and horror genres around which the current crop of 3D movies is concentrated. Indeed, it extends beyond movies-the possibilities for sports and nature documentaries, for instance, are exciting. Major sporting events are already being broadcast in 3D to cinemas, offering audiences a simulation of the spectator's experience in the stadium.

Then there is the promise of 3D video games-firstperson shooters and driving sims could soon become an even more realistic experience. 3D games could conceivably arrive in the home sooner than 3D movies and TV programming given the incidence of the early adopter profile among garners and a willingness to adopt peripherals that offer compelling gameplay -those consumers that are already using the guitar controller for Rock Band or Guitar Hero are arguably less likely to turn their noses up at 3D glasses.

Whatever the content, glasses seem a small price to pay for the 3D experience. And box office results for 3D movies suggest that many people agree. This month has seen the release of DreamWorks' animated movie Monsters vs Aliens and early indicators are that consumers are flocking to 3D screenings. A little more than a quarter of screens exhibiting the film showed it in 3D (the rest in 20) but it accounted for more than half of the total box office, with audiences queuing up to pay the higher ticket price. In fact, according to exit polls conducted by DreamWorks on the opening weekend, nearly 40 per cent of those that watched the f1lm in 20 had intended to see it in 3D, but showings were either sold out or were not at a convenient time.

Consumer engagement with 3D in the home should be just as fervent, although the fact that households will have to upgrade their TVs to watch 3D content might dampen enthusiasm, particularly if they have recently invested in an HD display. At least with 3D the industry has created a discernible product, one much easier to distinguish than HD and therefore more marketable. Providing the powers that be can agree on standards, displays with 3D capability should become commoditised along the same ']ines as HDTVs, at which point the replacement cycle for the living room TV set could shorten. This would be the best case scenario for the industry, as it looks to build a business for 3D, and for consumers, assuming 3D fulfils its considerable potential.


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Prospects for 3D in the home

There has been a lot of hype about 3D TV. But the industry getting behind a broad realm of technologies is a far cry from a monetisable mass market. Fundamentally, 3D is complex, more so than HD as technology and ecosystem. Screen Digest' TOM MORROD examines the issue.

This complexity will be reflected in uptake of 3D. It is often said that 3D is easier for consumers to 'see' than HD, thus driving true demand. But it can be countered that a market is not just about demand. It is about supply, price and information - all in questionable quantities.

Supply is a big piece of the puzzle and crucially, like HD, 3D is an ecosystem. It is certainly about the TV receiver, polarised or active switching; the glasses (easily forgotten but not necessarily 'in the box'). But it also takes in the decoding device - set-top box, games console or BD player; the distribution medium (broadcast/unicast), games console or 3D BD; the content and the process of capture, editing and contribution, including broadcasting infrastructure when not printed to disc.

Only about 20 per cent of broadcaster equipment is HD, 30 per cent of TV screens and less than that of set-top boxes. We are still in a very early stage of actual upgrade across the HD ecosystem. And while the HD infrastructure across broadcasters and operators can be used to transmit lower resolution 3D to some existing HD PVRs, all those TV screens will need replacing.

Price is a murky issue spanning both consumer and professional equipment. Many of the early announced prices for 3D TV sets are considerable inflations on similar non-3D TVs. This is especially true for passive polarised, where more technology is built into the display. However, active switching, offering screens at similar prices to non-3D displays, have a hidden cost: the glasses may cost up to $150 a pair, a major consumer cost.... Read More...