3-D Frontier in Flux
Differing formats complicate rollout of the technology
Making movies, TV and sports in 3-D is one thing. Distributing it across the vast and wild 3-D frontier is quite another.
Without question, 3-D - digital imaging technologies that combine slightly different right- and left-eye imagery to create the illusion of depth - has outgrown its century-old, parlor-trick status.
TV makers from Sony to Panasonic to Samsung now see 3-D displays as the cornerstone for profits, and they're priming demand with slick marketing campaigns featuring Peyton Manning and interactive portals like Sony's 3-D world. Hollywood studios, too, are upping the 3-D ante with releases of franchise flicks like Toy Story 3, alongside more run-of-the mill properties such as Captain America: The First Avenger, due out in summer 2011 from Marvel Studios.
Even hardware makers are banking on a new niche. An emerging family of Blu-Ray players, like the ubiquitous PlayStation3, now support 3-D discs.
But more importantly to Madison Avenue, the major multi-channel video infrastructures - that is, Comcast, DirecTV and AT&T - have all committed to carrying 3-D digital television services from the likes of ESPN and The Discovery Channel.
"We were the leaders in rolling out HD," says Sean Hanrahan, senior vice president of marketing solutions at ESPN. "And we see 3-D as the next great experience for sports fans."
All this 3-D techno swagger is creating the critical marketing mass that people who sell for a living crave: ESPN now markets 3-D in its "This is SportsCenter" franchise via Wieden+Kennedy-created 3D spots. And the shop is bullish about its prospects for mining the third dimension.
"Once you've experienced (content) in 3-D, there's no going back to HD," says Gary Krieg, head of content production for Wieden+Kennedy, based in New York. "But this time it's not just an upgrade in image quality, it's an opportunity to create an entirely new experience for the audience."
That's all true - except for one problem: When you make a piece of 3-D content, you are not making one thing, you are making dozens of things. 3-D imagery can't stop sprouting new formats.
Like the early days of digital television 20 years ago - where broadcasters, cable operators and PC screen makers all chose their own formats to produce and master distribute HDTV - today's 3-D confederacy is forcing content creators to produce to literally dozens of different production standards.
Each 3-D player seems to be following its own techno-muse: Cable operators and disc makers, in some cases, place the right and left eye feeds in completely incompatible formats. Image resolution and compression standards are drastically different, from satellite-enabled 3-D to filmed content. Even basic bits of technical specifications with moving imagery, like frame rates, can vary drastically from one part of the infrastructure to another.
The result is a 3-D furball that clutters the content-creation process and will slow the roll-out of 3-D content.
"There are a lot of moving parts in a 3-D image," says Ken Kerschbaumer, editorial director at the Sports Video Group, the sports technology and consultancy based in New York. "Eventually I think the market gets worked out, but as of now, there's a lot of choices the industry must make for 3-D content to work across the entire system."
3-D: HD's issues to the next power
To understand the mess that is the 3-D rollout over HDTV, it's important to revisit how high-definition digital television was deployed over standard-definition tv in the past 30 years.
Unlike standard-def - so-called NTSC TV - which rolled out essentially by government decree just after World War II, the deployment of digital HDTV has been a decades-long struggle. As soon as early digital HDTV digital standards bubbled up in the 1980s and 90s, competing display networks, pc makers and cable companies all chose their own approach to HD: how big images should be, the standards video pictures would use and similar features. All these competing standards have quietly but forcefully driven up complexity and installation overhead.
The sobering part is, compared to 3-D TV, the issues HDTV is wrestling with are trivial. 3-D content doesn't just have one digital image like HDTV that must have a common standard. It has two: a unique right and left eye feed. These two feeds are taking the problems of getting to a common 3-D video format to a new and frightening power.
"Producers can succeed in this 3-D world but it takes a real commitment to understand the ins and outs of 3-D," says Alana Parker, a spokesperson for C-T-S.com, an Orlando, Florida-based 3-D simulation and production company. "It is far more complex than traditional TV."
3-D is a right-eye, left-eye thing
The range of 3-D production languages is, frankly, mind-boggling. Disc-based 3-D technologies like Sony's Blu-ray formats have lots of data space and powerful video processors. So 3-D producers tend to place full-resolution right-eye and left-eye feeds on separate directories on discs and then use high-powered video process to render a near-full-resolution, high-definition TV image in 3-D.
Cable environments, meanwhile - Comcast and AT&T's U-verse multi-channel cable environments, for example - must store right and left eye feeds in central office servers far from consumers' homes. There is neither space nor processing power in set top boxes near TVs for unique, high-resolution right and left eye feeds as in Blu-ray players. So these 3-D distributors tend to place the right eye and left eye content in the same video frame, making the 3-D content on the Blu-ray disc impossible to play on Comcast's systems and Comcast's content impossible to play on 3-D disc players. The only solution is material that is "transcoded" - gathered in one format, and converted to another. It's a major image-processing headache.
All this added complexity is already burdening early 3-D production hardware. Panasonic's professional TV division earlier this year shipped one of the industry's early professional-grade 3-D video cameras: the AG-3DA1. The $21,000 unit does not create content in a single video standard, a la Betacams or VHS tapes of old. Instead it produces imagery across all the competing 3-D formats of everything from lower-resolution tv to several iterations of right- and left-eye feeds for 3-D content.
Panasonic refused to comment on the extra cost of building equipment to manage the complexity of 3-D. But the company was firm that equipment makers must support this multi-standard approach of 3-D for the foreseeable future.
"We built this camera to adapt to the multi-platform realities of 3-D," says Jan Crittenden Livingston, product line business manager at Panasonic. "This camera is what this market demands. "
3-D's day of reckoning The major hurdle for the 3-D market is coming in 2011. By next year emerging channels like ESPN 3-D, which now run only limited schedules for major events like The FIFA World Cup and the XGames, should start broadcasting 24/7 in 3-D. The move will probably be matched by new 3-D entrants including Verizon FiOS, which is whispered to be close to rolling out 3-D services as well. That means 3-D content will be needed not only for big events like The NBA All-Star Game, but for shoulder programming, documentaries and the rest of the TV ecosystem - including commercials: which will face the full brunt of the 3-D standards mess, as they must function across this sprawling 3-D infrastructure.
And those who master the intricacies of this wildly complex commercial production frontier will have the biggest guns in the 3-D Wild West.
"It is easy to produce 3D," says ESPN's Hanrahan. "As of now, it is hard to produce good 3-D."
Additional research and reporting by Blumsday LLC