Opinion: Is 3D dead, dying or just growing up?

By Stella Plumbridge, 3Droundabout

It’s just growing up. There – end of discussion – and the shortest article I’ve ever written, although I don’t think my editor is going to let me get away with that. Before I continue, what do you think?

Demand for 3D TV sets, and cinema box office performance of 3D films are two areas where, not surprisingly, 3D is falling short of the over-hyped expectations of 2010, and this is giving rise to many column inches devoted to the imminent demise of 3D. I’m not really a gambling person – the casinos in Las Vegas didn’t get a dime out of me during this year’s NAB Show, not even the virtual autostereoscopic croupier in the Flamingo Hotel – but my money is on 3D being around for the long term.

Of course you may well think that I am biased and have a vested interest in 3D succeeding since we’ve just launched a publication dedicated to it! And one company has accused me of jumping on the bandwagon. Well we have finally jumped after over two years of researching the market, but it wasn’t until late last year that I was convinced that my bet was safe, and that was after the 3D death knell was being tolled. What convinced me was the increasing number of projects we started to hear about that were using stereoscopic 3D content in all sorts of vertical markets outside of film and TV – education, digital signage, gaming, simulations, themed attractions, live events and business presentations to name a few.

The 3D genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and this time round it’s digital and we have the Internet, which allows 3D content to be created, processed and distributed in ways that were not previously possible. If you haven’t taken a look at YouTube for a while, try searching it for 3D content. There’s a mix of good, bad and downright ugly, but some of the viewing numbers are interesting, and YouTube has recently added NVIDIA 3D Vision technology to its viewing options which supports up to 1920×1080 120Hz LCD monitors for high-quality viewing. If you want to see more, then Spatial View’s 3DeeCentral offers free and premium content, as well as lenticular screens for glasses-free viewing on mobile devices and PCs.

Broadcast 3D may take a similar time frame as HD to develop – we haven’t even completed the switchover to digital TV here in the UK yet if you want a reality check – and 3D may falter at the cinema box office until the extra dimension is used more creatively, but I’m convinced both are inevitable. Commercial broadcasters cannot afford to be irrelevant in delivering the programming that their customers want, and BSkyB is leading the charge on 3D in the UK as it did with HD. John Cassy, Director of Sky 3D said at the recent 3DTV World Forum in London, “One of our objectives is to keep customers as happy as we possibly can, because they are literally a phone call away from cancelling if we do something wrong. We need to always be giving them value and 3D is something that is absolutely fundamental to that value proposition.”

Of course public service broadcasters have a different equation to balance and at the same Forum, Danielle Nagler, Head of BBC HD and 3D, explained that the BBC’s business is mainstream television and she presented a much more cautious approach, which you can read in full here. The BBC might have good reasons for taking things slowly, but this year’s Wimbledon coverage presents an interesting problem. The BBC has the rights to broadcast Wimbledon in the UK, but it has yet to make a statement about what it’s going to do in terms of the 3D broadcast of those rights. However in March this year, Sony and The All England Lawn Tennis Club announced that the men’s semi-finals, finals and women’s finals would be produced in high definition 3D in partnership with the BBC, and would be offered to broadcasters and suitably equipped cinemas globally. ESPN 3D has already announced it will be taking this 3D feed, so at this point Wimbledon coverage could be broadcast in 3D around the world, but not here in the UK. Given the very high profile of this event, this is a little awkward! [Ed. Not anymore - the BBC has just released a statement saying it will broadcast live 3D coverage of Wimbledon to homes across the UK via the BBC HD channel. Game, set and match to Sony and a major milestone for 3D broadcasting in the UK.]

I remember similar discussions about broadcasters taking too long to move into HD, but once consumer ownership of HD TV sets and HD camcorders reached a certain level, the pace picked up. Consumer electronics manufacturers are adding more 3D features to more and more devices, and autostereoscopic displays are developing rapidly, so removing the glasses barrier for many applications. Commercial broadcasters have the incentive to be first, but public service broadcasters can’t afford to become irrelevant either. The challenge of course is to bring the production costs down and to build an efficient distribution system. The DVB Steering Board has already approved the DVB specification for ‘Phase 1′ 3DTV, which is a Frame Compatible system that works with existing HD set-top boxes, and is now starting ‘Phase 2′ where it is not mandatory to use an existing set-top box.

On the cinema front, Hugo Cabret and The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn due November and December this year respectively, are tipped to further the cause of 3D film. Meanwhile TT3D: Closer To The Edge has been screened across the UK since it opened in April and has been praised for using 3D to great effect. Financed, produced and distributed by CinemaNX, the film is a documentary that follows key riders as they embark on the 2010 TT motorcycle race on the Isle of Man. It has the accolade of achieving the UK’s highest weekend opening box office takings for a documentary since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

The technical barriers are coming down, and production tools are getting cheaper and easier to use. The gimmicky ‘look at me I can poke you in the eye’ phase of 3D is coming to an end, and Hollywood is waking up to the fact that you can’t just add 3D to a poor film and expect it to be a hit. So I think rather than dying, the stage is now set for a much more interesting phase of 3D, where there needs to be experimentation with different genres and maybe a bit of rebellion against some of the existing rules, while of course being mindful of the fact that bad 3D can give you a headache and make you feel sick. But beyond the facts, figures and historical evidence, the sheer level of creative enthusiasm for 3D is something I haven’t seen before in my twenty-odd years of publishing. It is exciting and compelling and as I’m British, I don’t use those words very often!

If you’d like to tell me why I am wearing rose-tinted (3D) glasses, feel free to use the comments box below. If you have an opinion about how 3D is, or should be, developing, what is needed to help it, or any other aspect relevant to 3D content creation, delivery or display, and you’d like to contribute an article, email us at info@3droundabout.com.

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