Sunday, July 10, 2011

What's Wrong With 3D Today - And How To Fix It

3D in theaters and homes is a great idea. Today's 3D technology far surpasses that of the old anaglyph movies from previous decades. However both Hollywood and the consumer electronics industry are at risk of killing 3D.

The good thing, is that Hollywood and the consumer electronics manufacturers have both spent a lot of money on 3D this time around. Not to mention the money all the theaters have spent on converting to 3D. They all have every incentive to make 3D work. And there's still time to fix it. But to make 3D work they have to change a few things:

1. Hollywood has to stop making bad 2D-3D conversions out of movies that have no business being in 3D in the first place. 

The obvious example of this is Clash of the Titans. To be fair, I've never actually seen the movie (in 2D or 3D) but I've read enough reviews to know that this was a poorly done, after-the-fact, 2D-3D conversion that left a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of moviegoers.

Audiences left Avatar with a new sense of awe and respect for the 3D genre. Unfortunately movies like Clash of the Titans (and others) destroyed that respect and replaced it with suspicion and animosity. The result was a sharp drop in 3D box office sales in recent months. While there have been a few good 3D titles released since Avatar, the bulk of 3D releases have been lack luster at best and a complete rip-off at worst.

The recent release of Transformers, Dark of the Moon in 3D however has the potential to win back 3D moviegoers. Transformers 3 clearly has the best 3D visuals to date since Avatar. And 3D box office receipts for Transformers 3 back up those claims. But if Hollywood follows this up with another string of sub-par 3D titles again, then 3D is as good as dead in the theaters. Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice... 

2. TV Manufacturers have to stop bundling quality content as exclusives with TV purchases.

(Content Issue #1)

This one really makes me shake my head. You want to by a 3DTV to watch Avatar, Alice in Wonderland and Megamind? Well then be prepared to buy THREE 3DTVs since Avatar is exclusively bundled with Panasonic TVs, Alice in Wonderland with Sony TVs, and Megamind with Samsung TVs. Other titles like Bolt, Resident Evil, Shrek, etc are also only available via exclusive bundles.

One of the biggest knocks against the viability of 3D in the homes is lack of available content. So how did Hollywood and TV manufacturers address this lack of content? They made it worse by making the best titles only available if you buy their specific brand of TV.

Absolutely ridiculous. Of course this is becoming less of an issue as more content becomes available. But it still rubs people the wrong way if they are forced to pay $100 on eBay for a copy of Avatar in 3D.

3. Broadcasters need to find a way to improve the quality of 3D they are sending to viewers.

(Content Issue #2)

Sure, Disney's Tangled looks great in 3D on Blu-Ray. But what about if you want to rent it from your cable provider, Netflix or Vudo? Well then most likely you will be receiving the image in side-by-side (SbS) format that your 3DTV will convert into a 3D image.

Unfortunately SbS works by squeezing both left and right images onto one single frame, effectively halving the resolution. 3D networks like ESPN 3D suffer the same fate. The reason for this problem is that the broadcasting/streaming industry is built on a 2D infrastructure. 3D effectively requires twice the bandwidth as 2D to accommodate both left and right images.

Why would consumers shell out good cash for a new HD 3DTV and 3D content only to have the 3D image presented in SD quality? When someone shows off their new 3DTV to friends and family they need to be able to show a high quality 3D image, otherwise friends and family won't be impressed enough to go out and buy 3DTVs for themselves.

The problem is that it is very costly to upgrade the existing infrastructure to allow full 3D HD image transmission. Especially for a young industry like 3D that has yet to prove that it is viable in the long-run.

The solution? Look to emerging technologies like SENSIO Hi-Fi 3D. SENSIO has patented a process that compresses the 3D image in a way that allow it to be sent over the existing 2D infrastructure at near Blu-Ray quality (visually indistinguishable).

Of course this brings up the chicken and egg issue. Why would broadcasters transmit via SENSIO format if 3DTVs can't decode that format, and why would TV manufacturers incorporate the format if broadcasters aren't using it?

Well Vizio has already taken the first step and has licensed the SENSIO format for all of its 3DTVs. As well, most of the major SoC chip makers have signed deals with SENSIO to incorporate the format into their chips. Once another manufacturer or two begins to incorporate the format that should be enough incentive to get the broadcasters on board. Older 3DTVs that current don't have the SENSIO format could possibly be upgraded via firmware updates and/or upgrades to their set-top boxes that would decode the SENSIO format for them prior to sending the 3D image to the TV.

4. Improve the user experience at home.

3D has been somewhat embraced by the typical early-adopters of new technology. Sales of 3DTVs are actually outpacing initial sales of HDTVs when they were first introduced. However the price premium on HDTVs was also significantly higher than 3DTVs currently, so I'm not sure if we can rely on that comparison going forward.

To get the majority of TV users to embrace 3D technology we have to improve the user experience in the following ways:
  1. One of the key complaints about 3D is that viewing 3D causing eye strain from some. Part of the reason for that strain is the way the initial active shutter technology works. Passive 3DTVs, like those recently launched by LG and Vizio, improve the comfort level significantly. In fact a recent survey suggests that 80% of those tested prefer passive to active. Add to this the fact that passive glasses cost significantly less than active glasses (free-$20 vs. $50-150) and passive seems to solve part of the problem.
  2. In most cases when not viewing 3D content direct from a 3D Blu-Ray player, the user has to manually configure his/her TV to decode the signal and manually select the signal to be decoded (side-by-side, top/bottom, SENSIO, etc). On most TVs this process is complicated enough that the majority of casual user would never be able to figure out how to view 3D content on their own 3DTV. Add to this the fact that the 3DTV will then also try to convert 2D TV menus into 3D as well and the result is a bit of a mess. Luckily SENSIO also provides technology via SENSIO Autodetect that automatically detect the signal being received and configures the TV instantaneously to view the signal in whatever mode (2D or 3D) is appropriate. 
  3. In addition, SENSIO solutions include SENSIO S2D switch that allows 3D content to be viewed in 2D. This means that in instances where you don't have enough 3D glasses, or just want to take a break from 3D, you can watch 3D recorded or streamed content in 2D

So there you have it. Four things the industry can do to save 3D and actually allow it to flourish:

1. Stop producing 3rd rate 2D-3D conversions
2. Unbundle exclusive Blu-Ray titles like Avatar
3. Improve 3D image quality being sent via cable and internet
4. Improve the user experience at home

As an early-adaptor of 3DTV myself I can tell you that the issues identified above greatly reduce my enjoyment of 3D on my own TV. And these issues will need to be addressed before the majority of TV viewers feel comfortable enough to jump on the 3D bandwagon.

3D provides a huge opportunity for viewer enjoyment, as well as increased profits for Hollywood and electronics manufacturers. Let's just hope they correct the initial mistakes they've made and save the industry before they kill it.

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