There is no question that 3-D technology has given digital cinema a reason to exist, beyond the mere ability to reduce distribution costs. Maintaining the strength of 3-D as a lucrative media could be a challenge. Will 3-D remain a novelty of the cinema, or will it rapidly expand into the home market?
Technology adoption is never as quick as first producers would hope. It is a sobering fact that HDTV was in development for 35 years before the consumer market for the evolved technology took off. Things being faster these days, there are many bets that it’ll take less time for consumers to find 3-D TV attractive. But whether one’s bet is short or long, the gamble won’t be a detractor for 3-D development. 3-D is here to stay, having made its impact well beyond the entertainment industry, into industrial and medical applications. The challenge for the entertainment industry is the cost of producing high quality 3-D content, and the ability to produce home 3-D displays that consumers will like.
The rush to 3-D is driven by the willingness of consumers to pay a premium for 3-D movies, and a widespread belief that 3-D content is easy to produce. Despite the naysayers, audiences continue to pay a premium, as much as 33% in some markets, to experience 3-D movies. This remarkable fact has caused many productions to move to the 3-D format. Most notorious were the cheap, low-quality 3-D conversions by Warner Bros of Clash of the Titans and Cats and Dogs. But even Warner learned that 3-D isn’t so easy to produce, after trying the same trick with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1), only to have its effort tossed into the trash just weeks before its planned release.
The television networks are struggling with the content lesson. In this month’s 3-D Stereo Media event in Liege, Belgium, a French television director commented on the over-simplistic view that production executives buy into when pursuing 3-D productions, leading to insufficient budgets and poor quality. In the same conference, Simon Watt of Bangor University discussed the difficulties encountered in the perception of 3-D from stereoscopic content, making the point that more research is needed to understand the effects of long-term viewing. But a few weeks earlier, the French threw abandon to the wind, announcing the first 3-D porn channel for television in November. This could be good news for 3-D, as it’s often said with a smile that new media technologies only succeed when adopted for pornographic content. At the very least, we now know where the money will come from to produce better 3-D tools for live capture.
Research continues to produce better display technologies. The primary reason for the emergence of 3-D home televisions is the higher refresh rate now possible with LCD panels. A 3-D home television is essentially a 2-D television with a higher frame rate and the means to synchronize shutter glasses. Shutter glasses, as one may recall, direct left frames to left eyes, and right frames to right eyes, without the need for polarization or spectral filtering. The point is that little modification is needed with a modern 2-D LCD display to turn it into a 3-D display.
Autostereoscopic displays are much more difficult to make, the best of which are now available from Alioscopy. They also require multi-view content, which can require 16 cameras to produce. It’s easy for a manufacturer to place one’s toe in the 3-D market with high-frame rate stereoscopic displays. It will require a substantial increase in commitment to enter the autostereoscopic market.
The Blu-ray format for distributing 3-D content is not as straight-forward. To avoid doubling the number of video frames stored on disc to support left and right eye images, the Blu-ray format stores the full frame image for the left eye, while storing only difference information for the right eye. Thus, the right eye has to be reconstructed in the Blu-ray player, subjecting the quality of the 3-D image to the will of the manufacturer. (Likewise, to watch a 2-D version from the same disc, one only will see the left eye images.) This is a marked departure from that taken in cinema, where both full-frame left eye and right eye images are delivered to the cinema with the identical quality that was viewed by the director. This is a fact that cinema owners should relish when pondering over the impact that home 3-D will have on the theatrical release.
In the end, it all comes down to content. While cinema owners can be somewhat assured that the adoption of 3-D in the home will take years if ever to succeed, there remains concern for good 3-D content. Without a healthy home market to help absorb production costs, it is a challenge to produce quality 3-D. Because it is relatively easy to produce, the likely fare for good 3-D, now and in the future, will include a lot of animation. All the more reason why 3-D will continue to lure audiences to the cinema, but will find adoption in the home more challenging.