It seems like someone showed up at the NAB with a time travel device and the entire NAB floor was fast forwarded to 2015, deep into the second golden age of 3D. But somehow, the demo effect got out of control and demos were presented as established products.
Insight Media Analyst
Is 2010 the year that the broadcast industry committed to 3D? There were certainly more than 5 years of NAB shows where HD products were prevalent but the broadcast industry had not yet committed fully to HD. Last year, there was some traction for 3D, for sure, and some interesting demos and products shown. We were hosting the first "3D Village" and the visitors had a chance to see 3D pioneers show off their 3D rigs and cars. But 3D was still an option for the future, mostly sold by enthusiasts barely escaped from the Tin Foil Hat ward. How could solid, conservative companies like Harris, Sony, Grass Valley, etc. come to offer end-to-end 3D in only one year?
From my point of view, it all started in September, 2009 at the IBC with the set-top-box makers showing 3D-capable prototypes. If you know about set top boxes (STBs), you know there’s no money for frivolous features in that business. If STB makers spend money in 3DTV product development, its because they know something is happening and they will be able to sell their units. Three things that happened were the CES being flooded by 3DTVs, the Panasonic 3D camcorder, and the Sony decision to shoot FIFA 2010 World Cup soccer in 3D. Then, in the three months leading to NAB we had weekly news about 3DTV channels announcements, new "first broadcast in 3D" announcements from multiple sports and other events, sold-out batches of 3D television sets and a dozen new 3D movies entering development every month. It’s been like we skipped three NABs in a row and went directly from demos to finished, mass-market products. Maybe in the 3D business, years are faster. It is seven dog years to one human year. Is it three 3D years for one broadcast year?
Talking about time, the pioneer era is over in the 3D world and the gold rush is running full throttle. I have heard countless stories from stereographers who were being flooded with job offers. This one went to a TV channel headquarters to show some 3D footage and was never seen again: He was hired, on the spot, full time. That one went to a one-day test shoot and didn’t get to go home for months. The third is receiving weekly calls to license the 3D content he produced last year with an amateur 3D camera bought with a loan from a friend. For an experienced stereographer, turning down job offers is now a common task. If you cannot take a job offer, finding a friend or acquaintance to take the job is an achievement.
Last year I joked in my Display Daily titled, "Let’s Buy Our First 3DTV at NAB", I speculated on what it would take to build a 3D broadcast network: Cameras? Switchers? Editing software? What do we need them for? This year, some vendors had to kick potential buyers out of their booth saying, "No, No, No, not available before September. We take preorders on our website, not here, and now, would you please leave, we need the booth space for other desperate people!"
What concerns us, the old timers, is how much that unexpectedly early-on gold rush can potentially damage the 3D economy in the long term. I’m just not talking about a recently released almost-3D converted movie. I’m talking of all these snake oil vendors pretending that 3D is easy. "Yeah, you just basically bolt two cameras together and you can even zoom in." Or selling products that supposedly makes 3D easy. "We solved all 3D problems, current and future, with that button, here, the yellow one. And yes, we take orders, right now, sign here. We take cash."
The market will have to sort out the really good products from the poor ones offered by naive vendors, or even worse, the relentless snake oil vendors. Size, brand reputation and business track record may not really help in separating the wheat from the chaff.
At a single booth you can actually find three flavors of 3D products. Touring the floor with 3D effects guru Tim Sassoon, we stopped at a booth boasting a just-printed "3D Ready" sign, with no other iteration of "3D" on any visuals. When we inquired about what exactly was 3D ready, our host mumbled a few half-sentences about "We are ready for 3D." How nice. Ready to take orders, perhaps. Ready to deliver a product that actually will help a broadcaster get a 3D signal to consumers? Not a chance.
Another depressing thought is that the longer you have been in the 3D business, the more you know how complex it can be because of the level of quality it requires. Take a 3D camera rig, for example. Anyone can bolt two cameras side-by-side. Unfortunately, in all the good 3D feature movies you have seen, the size of the cameras used prevents this side-by-side camera arrangement. One need a beam-splitter to shoot high-quality 3D. It’s unfortunate, it’s uncomfortable, it’s not good for business, but that’s a fact.
It takes more than a machine shop to make a functional beam splitter camera rig. It takes a colorist to identify the adequate half-mirror. It takes a motion control specialist to accurately animate the cameras. It take a top director of photography (DP) to match the two images to each other. I could go on and on, all the way from unmatched lenses, dynamic zoom alignment, up to thermal lenses dilatation and military class low latency real time 3D image processing. As a result, the most experienced companies in the field are the one selling the least compelling products. Since they have been doing it for years, they know what they can, and perhaps more importantly, what they can’t deliver. "Yes, it’s expensive. No, it’s not real time. Yes, you need to be trained to use it. No, it does not solves everything." Who were the NAB attendees listening too? The depressing expert or the easy-going new kids on the block?
This Display Daily edition is already quite long and it is time to get to a positive conclusion. All the stars seems to be aligned for a real 3D come-back, in theaters, at home, on hand held devices and in digital signage. The question is not "if", "when" or even "how". We are already at the point were the industry is reshaping itself and is expecting a significant market share shift in professional and consumer spaces. I expect the next major milestones will be in June, with the European 3D expo "Dimension3" and the Sony-sponsored 3D FIFA world cup and the launch of DirecTV’s 3D service. These will be followed closely in September, with the 3D channels craving content to fill the announced 3D air time. At IBC, we should see the arrival of Sony and Panasonic’s 3D compact cameras, among many other new products.
You know why the time is going so fast in 3D technology? Most likely because the global amount of budget spent to put 3D products on the street has gone through the roof in the past year. If you need another clue, the rumor has it that Apple is going 3D! My geek inner child cannot wait…