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Thursday, 30 June 2011 18:06

What Were They Thinking – Again!

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By Gordon Meyer
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Time for me to get on my soap box again.  As regular readers know, I’m a passionate advocate for 3D technology.  It’s my position that, not only can it be a powerful storytelling tool if effectively used, it’s mass adoption by both consumers and filmmakers is roughly where HD was 15 years ago and where multi-channel sound was 35 years ago.  Translation: We’re building critical mass with content producers and consumers, now it’s about learning how to actually use the technology so we can move from the gimmick/novelty phase to 3D is a normal feature on at least half the releases out there.

In many ways it’s a chicken and egg conundrum.  You have to have enough content to justify theatres installing the equipment and consumers buying 3D capable TVs; but the content producers need to see a big enough potential market in order to justify the added expense and post-time needed to produce quality 3D content.

On the theatrical side, 3D content has definitely been building, though sadly much of it consists of so-so conversions of content originally produced in 2D.  That’s a separate conversation that I plan to return to later this year.

On the home entertainment side, there are only a handful of 3D Blu-ray titles on retail shelves so far. But 3D games are on the rise and you’re seeing more and more 3D content being broadcast on dedicated cable networks from companies like ESPN, DirecTV and Discovery. 

It’s also been my position that 3D in the home will drive 3D in theatres much more so than the other way around.  But one of the stumbling blocks surrounding home 3D has been the dominant use of active shutter technology on most TVs.  For those not familiar with the technology, active shutter glasses have LCD lenses that turn on and off 60 times a second in sync with what’s usually an IR signal emitted by the TV.  This way each eye gets its appropriate image at 60 fps.  The two biggest criticisms of active shutter glasses are how much they darken the image (and the resultant color distortion) and the price, which can run as high as $200 a pair.  Ouch!

Passive glasses use polarized lenses similar to the ubiquitous RealD glasses commonly used in theatres. Their retail cost is a fraction of active glasses and they usually let in a lot more light.  The tradeoff for some brands like Vizio is that using current display technology, there’s a significant drop in resolution from 1080p, though in my experience, if you’re sitting far enough from the screen, most people are unlikely to notice. 

LG was one of a handful of companies showing prototypes of 3D TVs at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show using passive technology.  Now you can actually buy them at your local retailer.  But while they advertise that their glasses are “just like the ones you get at the movies,” the truth is that LG uses a proprietary polarizing technology that’s not compatible with the RealD glasses used in theatres.

While initially, that’s going to give LG some market advantages over its active shutter competitors, it still adds potential confusion to consumers who like the idea of 3D in the home, but want to keep things simple, including the option of using the same glasses they wear in the theatre for their home use.  That’s also important to companies like Polaroid, Oakley and other eyewear makers wanting to tap into that market.

Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for the first generation of 3D TVs using Samsung and RealD’s jointly developed RDZ technology, which turns the entire flat screen surface into a polarized active shutter display.  This way, consumers get most prominent benefits of passive systems in the form of inexpensive glasses and brighter picture, while maintaining the full 1080p resolution that active shutter systems offer.  While we won’t know for sure until Samsung starts shipping RDZ-equipped sets, I have a feeling you’re going to be paying a hefty premium for the first generations of this technology as it involves covering an entire flat panel with a layer that toggles between two polarity settings 120 times a second. But you will be able to use the exact same RealD glasses from the theatre in your home.

The content and hardware suppliers need to remember that it’s ultimately all about the consumer and their needs.  Make it an easy and attractive proposition with good product, you’ll get their business.  Part of making things easy and attractive for consumers is having uniform standards with interchangeable components.  Can you imagine how badly the computer industry would have been impacted if companies like HP, IBM and Dell all made proprietary graphics boards that would only work with their own monitors?  That’s what’s currently happening with 3D glasses, whether they use passive or active technologies.  And it’s counterproductive boys and girls.

So why am I getting on my soap box to talk about what’s essentially an end-user issue?  Simple. Because the sooner all aspects of 3D become standardized, the more completely the technology will be a standard component of what we do. Just as we saw during the transition from monophonic to 5.1 channel sound, so too will we see 3D become the norm – as long nobody screws it up by making it more trouble (including more expensive) than it’s worth for consumers.  The success of 3D in the market place translates into jobs and necessary job skills because both DPs and everyone involved in post will need to master effective 3D implementation.  And that’s why it’s important.

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