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Entering a New Dimension

13 Jun, 2008 By: Chris Tribbey

The epiphany for launching the 3D@Home Consortium came to co-founder and managing director Chris Chinnock last year. But the affirmation came in April during a trip to Japan.

Over-the-air 3-D content is being broadcast there, but only for short-form programming. Also, 3-D TVs and accompanying 3-D glasses are given front billing in electronics stores, but the quality is poor and the set-up is clumsy, said Chinnock, president of Insight Media.

“I put on the glasses, and it's just not a very compelling image,” he said, adding that the set-up was not consumer friendly. “That's a major problem: you've got to make it idiot-proof.”

Making things easier and enticing for consumers, and for companies interested in capitalizing on the resurgence of theatrical 3-D are what the group is about.

The Consortium has attracted the likes of Philips, Samsung, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, NBC Universal, Imax, Thomson and a host of 3-D-specific groups.

“The reason you're seeing a lot of heavy hitters is because they're seeing the same things,” Chinnock said. “Hollywood's committed, the sports people are interested, and the gaming industry gets it.”

The Consortium's mission is to speed up the delivery of 3-D into homes. High priority discussion items for the group include helping determine the best file formats for home 3-D product, working within DVD and Blu-ray Disc standards, and coordinating with other 3-D groups in Europe and Asia.

“We need to bring this stuff to the home — that's what's important,” Chinnock said.

In the home already

In some ways at least, 3-D in the home, is already in the home: more than 1 million HDTVs sold so far in the United States are 3-D ready, Chinnock said, and another million are expected to be in American households by the end of 2008.

TV broadcasters and gaming are showing signs of 3-D interest. In April 3ality Digital demonstrated the ability to broadcast a live, 3-D feed via the existing 2-D infrastructure for an episode of “Deal or No Deal.” And Illinois-based TDVision recently unveiled a video codec that encodes 3-D content for delivery to existing 2-D set-top boxes.

“We believe the next step in the evolution of TV will be 3-D technology,” said Sungho Kim with Samsung Electronics, which introduced its 3-D DLP TV in 2007 and 3-D plasma HDTV this year.

Only a few dozen DVDs with 3-D have been released, packaged with glasses. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment is the first studio using Blu-ray for 3-D, with its Aug. 19 release of Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds 3-D Concert. A two-disc DVD is also being released, and both it and the Blu-ray will come with 3-D glasses.

Also, 3-D company TDVision Systems in May showed off technology that converts standard Blu-ray Discs to 3-D on certain 3-D capable TVs.

“We see a host of new opportunities for cooperation and innovation on the horizon — not only for display providers, but for those within every facet of the 3-D technology chain,” said U.S. Display Consortium (USCD) CTO Dr. Mark Hartney. USDC is the other co-founding organization of the 3D@Home Consortium.

DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg admitted the studio is looking beyond the theater for its 3-D content. His company will release all of its theatrical films in 3-D beginning in 2009.

“Whether or not it achieves the fullest potential [is unknown],” he said in a conference call with DreamWorks investors April 29. “There will be a time in which this will migrate on to other platforms and have, I think, again, premium value, but that's down the road a bit.”

The theatrical factor

The interest in at-home 3-D is being fueled by the resurgence of 3-D in theaters: According to research from Screen Digest, per-screen ticket sales for 3-D movies are more than double those for the same movie in 2-D.

By the end of 2009, more than 4,000 3-D capable screens will be up and running. That's thanks in large part to a recent agreement by Regal Entertainment Group to install 1,500 RealD 3-D screens in its theaters, eclipsing the total Imax and Dolby have installed combined. There were less than 100 digital 3-D screens nationwide for Disney's Chicken Little in 2005.

“Why is it finally time for 3-D to happen?” said 3Ality Digital Systems co-founder John Modell. “We have synergy between content creators and the technology industry.”

The ‘holy grail' of home 3-D

Mitch Perliss, senior business director of North American distribution at MagicPlay Entertainment, knows a thing or two about trying to get 3-D into the home. When he was with SlingShot Entertainment in 2002, the company paired Imax and horror DVDs with a set-top 3-D converter and two pairs of 3-D glasses, at about $100. But, much like the throwaway 3-D glass movies of old, the idea proved gimmicky.

“If you're watching with five, six friends, and they all need glasses it could be expensive. And it looks goofy,” he said. “I think the answer is if one has the ability to do 3-D without the glasses.”

Philips is working on autostereoscopic (without glasses) 3-D TV technologies, and more than one company has released projector-based 3-D technology with no need for glasses. But nobody yet has found a way to do glasses-less 3-D in the home affordably and with the ability to deliver the same experience seen in theaters.

“There's a significant amount of image trade-off when you try it without the glasses,” Chinnock said. “Showing a movie [without glasses], it just doesn't work right now. The image is degraded just too much.”

Richard Doherty of The Envisioneering Group said there's a market for 3-D in the home and that the glasses issue won't be a big one forever. Getting the product — and the message — to consumers is the biggest challenge. “They are largely unaware, and challenges in showing [3-D] at retail exist,” he said.

“Starting as a glasses-based market, the consumer application market will soon transform into glasses-free consumer applications,” predicted Jos Swillens with Philips 3-D Solutions. Philips has an autostereoscopic 52-inch screen set for this winter.

While 3-D content will be slow to come into consumers' hands at home, the future is bright, Chinnock said.

“The Holy Grail for TV, clearly, is glasses-less 3-D,” he said. “We'll get there, but it may take awhile.”

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