3D TV gets cold shower from Avatar man
Geek spec chic will have to wait
CES 2010 Judging by the avalanche of hoopla thundering out of last week's Consumer Electronics Show, you'd think that 3D television is done deal. All the wrinkles have been ironed out, and all you need to do is don a pair of geeky glasses and your boob tube will immerse you in three-dimensional movies, sports, and reruns of "The Office."
Not so fast, say industry insiders. Have a listen to Josh Greer, president of RealD, the technology provider behind James Cameron's übersuccessful Avatar, which recently finished its fourth straight week as the top-grossing film in the US, with worldwide receipts now totaling $1.34 billion.
RealD is also active in bringing 3D to television. But when speaking on a panel at CES last Friday, Greer told his audience: "There's so much misinformation and misunderstanding out there about what [is required] for a 3D display. It's a little bit of Wild West right now."
And that Wild West is rapidly filling up with a crowd of cowboys and
Indians Native Americans. At CES alone, 3D TVs were on display from Panasonic, Sony, LG, and Samsung. Toshiba was promoting its new Cell processor–based 2D-to-3D TV and 3D-capable Blu-ray player, while LG was pushing its single-lens 3D projector.
In his CES keynote presentation - perhaps not choosing his words as carefully as he might - Intel CEO Paul Otellini told the assembled thousands that "I think that 3D...is the next thing that's poised to explode in the home." He also noted an earlier announcement by Sony chairman and CEO Sir Howard Stringer of 3D TV channels in the US that are about to be launched by Discovery Communications and sports powerhouse ESPN.
Otellini even went as far as to host a "3D tutorial" on an Alienware PC equipped with a Core i7 processor running Cineform's FirstLight, a consumer-level component of that company's neo3d editorial workflow software for stereo video. In that demonstration, happy moppets danced around in a 3D home video while being color-corrected in real time.
Stringer's press conference was a veritable 3D orgy: Jimi Hendrix in 3D, a live performance by sweetheart-of-the-rodeo Taylor Swift framed by a live 3D projection of her and her glitter-encrusted guitar, announcement of future Sony Pictures and Sony Music Entertainment 3D efforts, a reminder of the 3D-enabling firmware upgrade coming for PlayStation 3, and such puffy pronouncements from Sir Howard as "When it comes to entertainment, there really is no experience like 3D."
RealD's Josh Greer contributed to the 3D TV hypefest when he said: "When people see a good 3D experience, it's not really much of a question for anybody." Taken as a whole, however, his comments about 3D in the home were more detailed and more realistic than those of Otellini and Stringer.
Greer reminded his listeners that the road to acceptance of 3D cinema wasn't without its bumps. "Five or six years ago," he said, "if you were one of the guys walking into [a movie studio] saying you were in the 3D business, if security didn't walk you out, maybe they would listen to you for a few minutes. It wasn't taken very seriously."
That disinterest ended after RealD's first major foray into 3D cinema - Disney's Chicken Little - opened in 2005 on 100 test screens. "In that first weekend...we saw three times the revenue coming from the 3D screens than we did from the 2D screens."
In other words, there's plenty good money to be made in 3D cinema. As Greer put it: "Jim [Cameron] told me very frankly a few years ago that 'I'm never going to shoot in 2D again.'"
But although there's a vast technical chasm between 3D cinema and 3D in the home, there's a tempting pot of money to be made by bringing those 3D movies to 3D TVs. "The problem with [studio executives] now," Greer says, "is they've spent a few billion dollars on 3D content and they're used to having those other windows in the home - second, third, and fourth markets. Those don't exist yet."
And so RealD started working on opening up those "windows" in the home. "This didn't happen overnight," Greer said. "We started actively persuing the home about two years ago. We showed up here at CES two years ago, took a lot of meetings, and I don't think there was a single company in the world at that point that really believed that 3D was going to be a serious thing."
But there's one huge problem that looms larger in the home than it does in controlled environments such as those enjoyed by 3D cinema: standards. As one Panasonic engineer told The Reg, with tongue thrust deeply into his cheek: "A standard? This is America - we'll have dozen of standards!"
Standards committees? We've heard of 'em
"We're at the beginning of [the standards effort]," Greer said. "There's been some great preliminary work done by SMPTE. CEA's been doing stuff. There's probably going to be 10 to 12 standards bodies that stick their fingers into the whole 3D thing by the time it's done."
But standards-making is a slow and laborious process, while the entertainment industry is a go-go-go world. "I think the challenge always with standards is 'Where do they get authored?" Greer asked. "Are they authored in a committee or are they authored in the marketplace? Left to standards committees, it could be several more years that we'd be sitting around the room talking about the great ultimate way to do this. The problem is we have customers who need 3D right now. They need it this year."
So RealD isn't waiting for a standards committee - it's instead brokering the standards debate itself. "We're going to be very open with standards committees," Greer said, "but we're actually going to build this in the market. Let's face it, we don't know everything that's going to work or not work in 3D yet."
When he talks with 3D TV manufacturers, Greer's approach is: "'You know, guys, there's seven different protocols out there. How about - and here's a crazy idea - why don't we come up with one protocol we can all agree with?' Getting Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic to all at least lumber together towards something a bit more consistent I think will be good for everybody."
Whatever standard emerges, however, "once we start building market share, [it] absolutely has to go back and be ratified in standards."
But we're not there yet, according to Greer, not by a long shot. "This year we'll see the first Blu-ray spec for 3D, which is actually going in a little different [direction] than we're doing for broadcast. MVC [multiview video coding], which is going to be the Blu-ray spec, will come out at the end of this year, which is great."
But Blu-ray, in Greer's opinion, isn't in itself a solution. "The problem is that we have a bottleneck - which is that to really commit to [Blu-ray], we have to throw out everything. We have to throw out our set-top boxes, we have to throw out our AV receivers, we have to throw out all our Blu-ray players."
Instead, Greer is bullish on broadcast. "When we look at this year, we say, 'Well, great. We're going to have 20 Blu-ray films in a year.' Is that going to be enough for people to go out and spend the additional money on TVs? Probably not. That's why we're spending so much time and energy getting DirecTV to commit to putting stuff out."
The numbers involved are rather lopsided in Greer's calculus: "As opposed to being limited to a few dozen people who are the early adopters, we can drop this into DirecTV this summer and suddenly turn on potentially 25 million subscribers."
And the problems don't end with standards and Blu-ray v. broadcast. There are also all those pesky "3D ready" kindasorta 3D TVs being sold today that use a variety of different formats, plus at least three different types of 3D glasses: active glasses that rapidly blink your eyes alternately on and off electronically, and passive polarized glasses that use either circular or linear polarization.
And then there are the different types of TV technologies, each with its own wrinkles. "DLP is very different from plasma, which is very different from LCD - and even with LCD there's some very significant differences there. There's no 'one size fits all' for 3D yet. I think it's going to be very subjective for people for the next couple of years - active glasses, passive glasses, full-resolution, frame-packed resolution - there's going to be a lot of talk."
So what should someone who wants to jump on the 3D TV bandwagon do today? "I think through the next 12 months, things will settle down dramatically. We've got the MVC Blu-ray spec, so that's being put to bed and that will give us one solidified source of content. We'll get the broadcast issues worked out pretty quickly...so what I would suggest is to try to get a system that's bundled, meaning it's got format built into it and it's got a couple of pairs of glasses. Because anything that's '3D ready', you're going to have a hard time putting the pieces together."
As might be assumed, Greer's view of the future is an optimistic one. "My prediction - not that I've been asked for one - is that, yes, 3D is going to enter the home. But I believe 3D is actually going to enter every visual display. Over the next five years, whether you're at a supermarket looking at an ad, whether you're in an airplane looking at a movie, you will start to see 3D devices show up everywhere."
He didn't, however, comment on how those 3D supermarket ads would work without all of us shoppers wandering through the aisles wearing geeky glasses.
And when asked about what would be needed to view, for example, ESPN's 85 3D shows in that broadcaster's first year of embracing the new technology, Greer answered: "A new TV." ®
As if to emphasize the lack of consensus among the 3D TV community, when asked to name the "killer app" that will cause a rapid adoption of 3D technology in the home, Greer said: "No question the other half of this equation for the home is going to be gaming."
Another of his fellow panelists, Levy Gerzberg, president and CEO of digital-entertainment chipmaker Zoran, echoed Paul Otellini's home-video demo by saying "I project that the disruptive technology related to 3D will be related to personal content." Sony's Sir Howard is banking on the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
We, however, predict that 3D TV will only "explode" when Emeril Lagasse shouts "Bam!" and thrusts a spoonful of cioppino under your schnozzola.