If one thing is clear from this year’s recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it’s that the major electronics vendors expect 3D home-theatre systems to invade living rooms in 2010. Following the breakaway success of the blockbuster 3D film Avatar, Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, LG and others showcased a range of 3D-enabled televisions and Blu-ray players due to hit the market very soon. A number of television content providers also announced that the future holds 3D broadcast material for enabled viewers, including 25 Football World Cup games on ESPN and a dedicated, 24/7 channel collaboration between Discovery Communications, IMAX and Sony.
It’s all very exciting, and the thought of bringing the Avatar experience home for a range of content – from sports to documentaries to feature films – is certainly compelling. On the other hand, there’s a fair amount of skepticism towards the 3D format, with many consumers having only just joined the high-definition revolution. And that’s not to mention the many who remain unconvinced as to the format’s appeal.
What is 3D?
If you’re among the millions who’ve seen Avatar to date, you’ll need very little introduction to 3D cinema, and even less encouragement that it’s come a long way since the cardboard and red-and-blue cellophane glasses of old. In the cinema, special polarised glasses relay specially filmed content to the viewer in a manner that provides an illusion of depth perception. It can make the viewer feel like they can reach out and touch on-screen objects, or even that they might have to evade an object flying towards them.
Typically, 3D content must be filmed with special cinematic cameras that record the same ‘event’ from two different perspectives simultaneously. The two ‘perspectives’ are then overlaid onscreen, and then special eyewear ensures that a different perspective is received by each of the viewer’s eyes. The two major types of eyewear are passive, polarised glasses (such as those commonly used in IMAX theatres) and the more expensive and more effective battery-operated shutter glasses. Both types of eyewear ensure that each eye views a separate image, although the shutter glasses eliminate ‘ghosting’ (a blurred kind of effect) by rapidly closing the left and right shutters at the instant the images change for each eye.
A small number of auto-stereoscopic 3D televisions – which don’t require special glasses in order to view the 3D content – were demonstrated at CES this year. However, this technology is still relatively problematic compared to stereoscopic 3D (where eyewear is required), with visual trade-offs perhaps rendering it unready for mainstream adoption. Much like holographic stickers, there are limited viewing angles for auto-stereoscopic 3D, and a slight head adjustment can spoil the illusion. Furthermore, auto-stereoscopic 3D televisions are currently limited to a maximum resolution of 720p, which is less than that of the current standard of high-definition televisions. Industry commentators claim auto-stereoscopic technology is currently only useful for short viewing sessions (such as walk-by advertising on dedicated screens) as opposed to extended viewing sessions for leisure purposes. Some manufacturers have even teased televisions that render existing 2D content to 3D (ie: no special 3D filming is required), although the quality is reportedly rather poor at this stage.
So, will I need new equipment?
The bad news for those who’ve previously shelled out for HD-capable televisions is that you will be forced to buy some manner of 3D-capable television if you intend to utilise the format – no exceptions. Current 3D technology requires a faster refresh rate than the last generation of HD television sets typically allows. The even worse news is that, in most cases, your existing Blu-ray player won’t cut it either when it comes to watching 3D content on physical media. Because 3D content consists of at least twice as many frames as standard, 2D content, a new High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) standard is required for full 1080p resolution output to your screen – and existing Blu-ray players are simply not outfitted with this. Some existing, Web-connected Blu-ray players (such as the PlayStation 3) will play 3D content after a firmware upgrade, although it will be limited to 1080i resolution at the very most and will not be considered ‘true’ 3D.
When can we expect 3D TV sets and Blu-ray players to hit New Zealand?
After taking out CNET’s Best in Television and Best in Show awards at CES, Panasonic is particularly excited about bringing its line of exclusively plasma 3D televisions (see page 27) and enabled Blu-ray players to New Zealand shores. “We’re [looking at] mid this year, but we’re trying to bring that forward as much as possible,” says Grant Shaw, Panasonic New Zealand’s product manager for television, Blu-ray and DVD.
At the time of writing, Shaw himself was only in the very early stages of learning the details of the company’s local 3D TV distribution. He was confident enough to admit that the sets would fetch a premium price, adding that this “will be above our 2D sets, but it won’t be crazily priced”.
Samsung’s 3D televisions also generated a lot of buzz at CES, particularly with its super-thin 9000 Series (see page 27). Samsung’s Director of Marketing, Rachael Cotton-Bronte, says the company’s 3D range will hit the New Zealand market “some time during the second quarter” and that “we will be providing additional details as the release date draws near”.
Sony’s General Manager of marketing, Matt Walton-Smith, says his company’s range of monolithic Bravia 3D televisions should be available here towards the end of the year. “The global availability is for the [US] summer of 2010. For New Zealand we’re expecting to launch Sony 3D products in the winter time.”
Will there be anything to watch?
Forking out for a 3D-capable TV is one thing, but will the content be there to make it worth your while? Perhaps not in the early stages, but there is every indication that – internationally at least – the technology has some serious backing for a long-term investment.
Freeview’s technology manager, Tim Diprose, had the privilege of experiencing 3D television in the flesh at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, back when the technology was relatively new and not primed for mainstream adoption. But even then, he came away impressed with the format’s potential (for sports in particular) after watching an NFL game in 3D. He’s understandably excited about the prospect of eventually broadcasting 3D content on the Freeview platform, but regrettably he says there are currently no plans to bring it to New Zealand screens in the near future.
SKY TV’s director of communications, Tony O’Brien, explains that locally produced 3D content (such as SKY’s comprehensive sports coverage) is certainly some time away. Where the subscription broadcaster currently transmits sporting events in both HD and SD (standard definition) using 22 cameras, bringing 3D into the equation severely complicates matters and brings a significant cost increase. “You need [the equivalent of] two HD channels to give you the bandwidth we’d need for one 3D channel. There’s a massive cost increase there,” he explains. The expense of the camera technology would also likely reduce the number of cameras capturing the action and, subsequently, the depth of coverage. They might get some spectacular 3D imagery, but “they’d miss quite a lot of the game”, he says.
O’Brien admits that syndicating non-live content from abroad is a possible way in which New Zealanders might encounter 3D in the near future, but he points out that the relative dearth of content in the format’s early stages would hardly justify a dedicated channel. “We believe it’s unlikely that every movie will be in 3D, and the ones that are will be big-budget, visually rich films. I reckon that if we had a 3D channel, we wouldn’t have enough content to last a week.”
Similarly, John Allen, director of technology for Mediaworks (TV3, C4) says that while he’s watching the situation very closely, the content issue looks to be a major obstacle to 3D broadcasts in New Zealand – at least in the short term. “It’s going to be a while before there will be any significant prime-time material available,” he says, adding that he believes 3D’s primary application will be in gaming.
The 3D Blu-ray format, however, will most definitely hit New Zealand shelves this year, with the release of the first titles coinciding with the launch of enabled televisions and Blu-ray players, according to Sony’s Walton-Smith. The first retail stereoscopic 3D-capable video game (James Cameron’s Avatar: The Video Game, funnily enough) went on sale here late last year, pre-empting the sale of enabled televisions. However, 3D-capable computer monitors have been available here for some months already, with around 300 existing games offering some degree of 3D support.
However, the film, music and television industries are seemingly placing a lot of stock behind the medium because – on account of the obvious and exclusive incentives 3D offers – it presents a new means of circumventing piracy. It might be a fairly slow crawl, but the popular opinion is that the content will indeed accrue.
Will it take off? And should I even care?
And aren’t those the big questions? Sure, there’s a lot of hype surrounding 3D, but will post-recession consumers who are only now beginning to embrace high-definition televisions be quick to adopt?
“I feel like they’ll eventually have it forced on them incrementally over time, just like HD and digital tuners have come in,” says Ben Gracewood, gadget reviewer for TVNZ’s Breakfast show and all-around technology expert. “People will end up with 3D-capable televisions through eventual replacement.”
Ultimately, Gracewood believes it’s content that will drive the adoption of the 3D format, and pointing to the likes of Avatar and the Soccer World Cup, he acknowledges that the time could well be right. “It seems like there’s a decent drive for content to be produced. It seems there’s enough groundswell from [the likes of] ESPN and producers for it to actually kick off.”
Freeview’s Diprose, as enamoured as he is with the technology, thinks its adoption will be fairly staggered. “I think it will be a geek thing to start with,” he says. “I don’t know the prices yet. It’s going to be expensive, [but] I think within no time at all, most TVs will be 3D-capable, just like most are now HD-capable.”
SKY TV’s O’Brien agrees that, in terms of content at least, 3D will be a slow burner until New Zealand’s infrastructure evolves to accommodate it. “Just like HD in the US and UK, we got it several years later,” he explains.
And don’t expect 3D TV to drive down the prices of existing HD televisions any time soon, with most questioned by NetGuide stating that HD sets have gone about as low as they can, and that 3D will simply add a higher premium. “I’d hate to think that [HD sets] could drop any further than they are now [but] this is only year one,” says Panasonic’s Shaw.
Then, of course, there’s the eyewear; a potentially off-putting condition of entry into the world of 3D. “I think the glasses are one of the huge stumbling blocks of the whole thing,” chuckles Gracewood, who anticipates that the cheaper, polarised option will win out with consumers in the short term.
However, Freeview’s Diprose contends that the point is fairly moot, given that he anticipates viewers will consume 3D content mostly for special occasions such as sporting events and blockbuster movie features. “It could easily be where surround sound is now in a couple of years,” he says. “You’ll never watch the news with it. It’s got to be content-driven, and it’s got to add to the experience. I do think you’re going to get that with sport. I think that’s going to give you an extra dimension and really immerse you into it.”
But then there are also the reports of motion sickness and what many are referring to as the ‘Avatar headache’ after watching the film. And that’s not to mention that the stereoscopic effect is all but completely lost on those with visual impairments and sight in only one eye. Some 3D eyewear accommodates prescription glasses underneath, however, and prescription 3D eyewear is reportedly around the corner.