The Future of 3D: Ten Questions To Ponder

The central hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center put 3D display (and even production) technologies front and center at CES last week, proving just how serious consumer-electronics manufacturers are about 3D. But as Betamax, Super Audio CD, and HD-DVD have shown earlier, just because the industry says “this is what you want,” that doesn’t mean consumers will bite. So what will happen? We’ve assembled some answers to some of the commonly heard questions as well as some prognosticating for the future.

Will we always need to wear glasses?
Never say never, but odds are pretty good that glasses will be the norm for the 3D viewing experience for at least the next five years — and maybe much, much longer.

Glasses-free 3D was on display at CES, with Samsung being the biggest manufacturer to take a stab at it. The problem with glasses-free 3D is that the viewer needs to be in a very small sweet spot in order to experience the 3D effect.

That sweet spot right now is so small that often moving the head an inch or two to the left or right will cause big-time headaches (and worse). So, if you think having the entire family wear glasses to watch 3D is uncomfortable, just wait until everyone is literally sitting on each other’s lap.

Even worse, the experience, even when it is in 3D, simply doesn’t compare in terms of picture quality, brightness, and color as the traditional glasses experience.

Can you watch 2D content on 3D sets?
Yes. If there is one great thing about buying a 3D-capable set, it is that they are completely compatible with 2D viewing. So that means the 3D capability is more an add-on, rather than the main reason someone is buying the set.

I hate 3D. Tell me something cool about the new TV sets that doesn’t involve 3D.
At least, the 3D sets are simply a new feature to a new line of TVs (both high-end and mid-range) that deliver a lot of improvements over last year’s models. Besides the picture and audio improvements are features like built-in WiFi, Skype, and cool widgets for things like weather, news, and scores and much more.

Topping the list of product enhancements is much improved black levels across the board. True blacks, much improved contrast ratios, better colors, and much faster refresh rates were the big non-3D stories. So if you’re looking to buy a new 2D TV set, now may be the time — and yes, you’ll be able to embrace the 3D revolution you loathe at the same time.

I love 3D — or at least enough to be interested in experiencing it. So what gives? If I buy a 3D-capable set, how often will I be able to really kick it into gear and experience 3D?
Here’s what we know. DirecTV will launch three channels in June, offering a mix of events and a VOD channel. These channels will be an important way for over-the-air broadcast and cable networks to do one-off events in 3D without committing to a full-time 3D network.

ESPN and Discovery are also set to launch 3D networks this year. However, neither has a carriage deal, and ESPN has said it will not offer its content for delivery over DirecTV unless it is given a dedicated channel.

In terms of actual broadcast commitments to 3D, the only events that have been publicly mentioned are the World Cup, the X Games, and some college football. But we do expect a slew of other major sporting events to be produced in 3D this year.

This is actually an important step for broadcasters and cable networks, because the viewing audiences will primarily be early adopters, who are usually more understanding of glitches and mistakes.

As one network executive said, the AVS Forum message boards — which, in the early days of the HD transition, were the best means of hearing how well (or often, how not well) an HD broadcast was being received in the homes — will once again become an important conduit.

Beyond broadcast, consumers will be able to watch Blu-ray titles in 3D, although the number of titles really won’t become compelling until 2011. There is little doubt that the eventual release of Avatar on Blu-ray in 3D and the potential for classic movies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings in 3D will also drive adoption.

As for answering the question of how often the viewer will be able to experience 3D content, let’s give a conservative estimate of 20 hours a week during 2010.

And to be honest, the events rumored to be in 3D will eclipse the early days of HD in terms of prestige and popularity.

If I buy a 3D set, will I be able to bring my glasses over to a friend’s house and vice versa?
Some manufacturers will use the same type of glasses, but there will not be across-the-board compatibility (even if all of the glasses are active). So there will be some compatibility issues, and that does stand to be a potential headache (literally) if someone wants to invite friends over for the big game but can’t afford to spend $500 to buy 10 pairs of glasses.

Speaking of the big game, I can’t wait to see the Super Bowl in 3D. When will that happen?
That is a good question. At this point, the safe bet would probably be 2013 or 2014 — at least for it to be available via over-the-air DTV.

The problem facing major sporting events is that the biggest events are typically still broadcast on over-the-air TV stations and networks. But there is currently no way to deliver 3D via over-the-air transmission. So, while a network like CBS, NBC, or Fox Sports could broadcast an event in 3D over DirecTV’s service, the Internet, or a cable partner, it will cause consternation among stations concerned that their Nielsen ratings will take a hit.

The biggest hope for the industry is that the ATSC can somehow “fast-track” 3D transmission, but, right now, the ATSC is focused squarely on mobile DTV and non–real-time transmission of content.

Is 3D really here to stay?
That is hard to say, but a gut check says yes. And here’s why. First, 3D is here to stay in movie theaters. Part of the reason Avatar is doing boffo box office is that the tickets cost more for the 3D experience than for 2D.

More important, animated movies have definitely made the leap to 3D. And their audience, namely children, will want to have that same experience at home. Forcing junior to toss on a pair of anaglyph glasses to watch Aliens and Monsters or Hannah Montana in 3D is just not going to cut it.

Then there is the gaming experience. Videogames are poised for a 3D explosion. With gaming-console sales sagging and the sale of titles dropping, the gaming companies need to offer a new experience, and that is going to be 3D.

So 3D seems destined to have a role in the living room. The question is whether broadcasters and cable networks can monetize their 3D efforts in such a way that it actually proves worth the additional production expense an effort. And that, of course, remains to be seen.

So when is this 3D thing really going to take off? Is this going to be similar to the HD transition?
That is the big question, because there is no government mandate to go 3D. But then, there was no government mandate to go HD either — just a mandate to go standard-definition digital.

John Taylor, VP, public affairs and communications, for LG Electronics, expects the transition to 3D to move more quickly than the one to HD, which suffered for years because programmers didn’t want to invest in HD programming until they had viewers and viewers didn’t want to buy sets until there was programming.

“The Blu-ray HD specification gives 3D momentum and certainty,” he says. “And sports will be a huge driver because it’s such an immersive experience. So we’re bullish on 3D.”

That is an important point. Even standard-definition DVD was in its infancy when HD was launched. Giving consumers a way to experience 3D via multiple platforms (and we have not even mentioned delivery via broadband) gives the format much more stickiness.

And who knows, with broadcasters seemingly losing favor in Washington and increasingly seen as bandwidth hogs standing in the way of free WiFi for all, maybe free over-the-air 3D will be a panacea to quiet the FCC and politicians.

How would broadband delivery work?
One of the issues facing broadcasters and cable networks is going to be resolution, because, without doubling the size of the signal, the effective resolution will be half that of 2D. How noticeable that resolution hit is to viewers remains to be seen, but there are concerns that, if it’s noticeable, then viewers could prefer the 2D experience.

Delivery via the Internet, however, could get around some of those issues and allow, for example, a true 720p 3D experience to be delivered to a PC or TV display.

Is 3D production ever going to become the norm for TV production?
We’ll go out on a limb and say no, but there also was a time when people in the industry said that HD would never be the norm for home videos. If 3D follows a similar path in terms of viewer expectations, we could very well be looking at 3D newscasts in six or seven years.

There are obviously plenty of issues to be dealt with when it comes to production in 3D. Can it be unified with the 2D production? Will 3D productions require new camera positions? How can 3D production techniques, with an emphasis on creating a sense of space and depth, be effectively applied to sports where camera positions are traditionally far from the field of play? How will this impact staffing, production-truck design, workflows, and transmission demands?

How this will all shake out remains to be seen but it will make for an interesting couple of years.