If you’ve been to a “3D” movie lately you know what a huge difference it can make to the quality of the viewing experience. Given a choice, many of us are opting for the 3D version of a film and we’re willing to pay a little more to see it. In some cases the 3D version of a film can command 2 to 3 times the revenue of the 2D version. The problem is the “big screen” theatrical experience doesn’t yet translate at all to the little screen in your home.
If you have experienced a 3D movie in your home and you aren’t 7 years old, you probably shook your head, chuckled a little bit, pulled the cardboard glasses off your face, wiped the Cap’n crunch crumbs off your nose and changed the program. The glasses you wore to see the 3D effect were most likely of the the “red-blue” variety. Technically known as “Anaglyph Stereovision,” the left-eye and right-eye views are “tinted” – one Cyan (blue-like) and the other Magenta (red-like). The like-colored glasses you wear “cancel” out the corresponding-colored view in each eye so each of your eyes only perceives a single image. Your brain then puts both images together to create the stereo effect. 3D has been enjoyed this way for decades.
Anaglyph 3D works on just about any display type including print and the glasses are dirt cheap (and fit nicely in cereal boxes or magazines). That’s why the current generation of home-viewable 3D content (DVD, Blu-ray, etc) is done in this format. However, there are myriad drawbacks to this approach – not the least of which is a relatively poor 3D effect overall on low resolution displays like plain old standard definition TV sets. The natural color of the image tends to get tinted because of the color encoding. Some movies use slightly different hues to colorize each image view requiring different glasses. There is also evidence to suggest that men and women perceive anaglyphic 3D differently (kind of like we perceive “volume level” differently).
. . . data from the US research showed that nearly 70% of females would prefer to see depth with the cyan on the left, and 80% of males would prefer to see depth with the cyan on the right.
No problem – just ask your wife to flip her glasses over the next time she feels nauseated watching an Anaglyph 3D movie.
That said, the industry has progressed. I have seen High Definition 3D on a consumer TV screen that would make your jaw drop its so good. 2D HDTV pales in comparison. The technology does exists today. Using newer techniques than anaglyph, left-eye and right-eye views can be displayed in full color using advanced interlacing (displaying both left-eye and right-eye images at the same time using half the screen for one and half the screen for the other) or sequential display (displaying the full left-eye and right-eye frames one right after the other) techniques. Both cases require glasses (for the best experience), but these work just like the ones at the theater. On the TV front, Mitsubishi, Samsung and others have been selling “3D-ready” HDTVs now for over a year and there are upwards of 2 million already in U.S. living rooms. You may even own one (and not know it).
So what is the hold up? 5 reasons (and there are probably more):
1. There still isn’t enough content. Hollywood Studios have and will continue to produce a strong slate of films in 3D, however the vast majority of what we watch is good old broadcast TV. 3D is expensive to produce, especially for live events like sports. Sure there have been some major events “broadcast” in 3D, but these were major events (BCS Championship, etc) were viewed primarily in digital 3D-equipped theaters. Until our daytime, prime time, and sports events are are available in 3D, consumer demand will probably remain low. Chicken and the egg right?
2. The industry can’t agree on how to get it into your home. Transport is a real problem. There is no agreement on the best way to encode and move the extra 3D material over the wire, or over the air to your house, or even the best way to put it on Disc. Without an agreed upon standard, Consumer Electronics manufacturers are loathe to start building receiver and decoder support lest we find ourselves in yet another format war. Not to worry though, the same companies that brought the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD debacle are working on it for you.
3. “Something” needs to “decode” it. A PC, a Game Console, a Set-top box, eventually your TV, but something needs to receive the digital signal and decode it into its left-eye and right-eye views for display. The decoders that process digital video in most devices today just aren’t powerful enough. Remember the “3D-ready” TVs that I mentioned earlier. They just display decoded 3D video. They actually require an external decoder box – a PC today – to decode and process the 3D material.
4. Most of us would have to buy new TVs. The vast majority of us don’t have 3D TVs – in fact we’re still paying off the 2D HDTV we just bought over the Holiday last year. You could hedge now and buy a 3D-ready TV, but you may end up waiting a while and needing a lot more equipment to make it work (see 5).
5. New Format 3D glasses can be expensive and will get just as lost as the remote control does today. The remote control is hard enough to keep track of – adding more accessories to the viewing experience will only make things worse (fashion statement aside). Depending on the type of display technology used, a single pair of glasses can cost upwards of $100 or more. Not an option for my family of 5.
So where will 3D emerge and gain a foothold in the home? My prediction is PC gaming to start. Because of the nature of the way games are displayed, modern graphics cards can actually produce the stereo imagery on the fly. This means that virtually any game you buy could be enjoyed in 3D if you have the hardware. nVidia already provides drivers for their graphics cards to support stereo display and sells a kit to upgrade a standard PC. Add a 120Hz monitor from Samsung and you’re all set. As more desktop systems become 3D-enabled, we may begin to see a larger market for 3D content through Movie download services like CinemaNow, Amazon, iTunes and others. This also opens up the possibility of 3D-enabled applications – think Google Earth but in stereo!
In parallel I suspect Game Console manufacturers will also look at how to provide support for decoding 3D from download, or in the case of Sony, from Blu-ray disc. The Blu-ray disc association is hard at work on standardizing 3D encoding. Don’t expect it anytime soon over traditional TV services like Comcast or Dish Network – they’ll have to replace all of their set-top boxes first.
As for the “when” we’ll see mass availability of 3D tech? My best guess is closer to 5 years than 3 before there is any kind of real availability of all of the pieces of the puzzle, including content, and that is IF consumers really start clamoring for it (cue cricket noises).