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The glasses problem and stereo 3-D versus 360-degree viewing

There is a bit of a joke starting to circulate through the press gatherings and cocktail parties at this NAB convention where everything is supposed to be about 3-D. While we all knew that professional 3-D screens almost universally are designed to work with cheap polarized lens glasses (the kind you get in movie theaters), it is starting to become apparent that the home sets will require much more expensive active shutter glasses. In addition, each manufacturer is making them proprietary to their own systems. So if you own a Sony home 3-D set, you cannot take your glasses over to a neighbor's house and use them with their Panasonic or Samsung set to watch the Big Game. Sure, they all have flicker lenses, but the triggering mechanism each uses is different. So unless you are willing to shell out in the range of $150 for another pair of fancy specs, watching 3-D in the home will really mean watching 3-D only in your home.

So why do the pro sets use polarized lenses? That became obvious when I toured the Epic 3D production truck outside the Sony exhibit. It's a magnificent study in efficiency, with separate consoles for 2-D and 3-D screens, labyrinthine patch panels, and a wonderful audio bay. But if the 3-D displays required shutter glasses, there would be a devil of a time trying to keep all the screens in sync, so pros get polarized lenses that are cheap enough to toss away. But home adopters will have to buy flicker glasses so expensive they warrant their own jewelry cabinet.

Seeing that truck was great preparation for Monday afternoon's panel discussion in the Content Theater (a special meeting room with 3-D projection) about ESPN's plans for future 3-D sports production. An overflow crowd was treated to specially selected 3-D highlight reels of football, basketball, and X-Games action along with some cuts from Masters golf in 3-D. Today's sports events are covered by separate 2-D and 3-D crews, but during the discussion it was revealed that the ultimate goal was to shoot only with 3-D cameras and extract the 2-D simulcast from one of the left or right streams—as if the requirements of 2-D and 3-D visual story telling were the same!

I cite these above examples as more reasons for my skepticism about the rapid adoption of home 3-D and its ability to support regular 3-D broadcast channels. It seems that this industry has been so inebriated by the potential of marketing a whole new medium that it has simply not thought through all the implications.

But it sure is trying its best. At the JVC booth, I watched their 2-D-to-3-D conversion technology present highly viewable 3-D scenes that were shot with conventional 2-D cameras. Some were converted on the fly, others with a more believable depth perception were massaged during post production. But it sure looked good, and in a world where the majority of TV viewers think DVDs are high definition, this 3-D impersonation may find a large audience once the cost of real stereoscopic 3-D production starts to hit some bottom lines.

There are also a growing number of attempts at glasses-free or autostereoscopic displays. One of the best on display was from Alioscopy at a midday lunch hosted by Maxon. With only eight "views," or pairs of images being beamed out of the screen, it was barely good enough for digital signage. Once you move your head, your eyes get a confusingly broken-up image. Maxon also touted its latest Cinema 4D software, which brings up another interesting quirk in the 3-D wonderland. Although graphics have simulated height, width and depth when spun around on a 2-D display, this use of the term "3D" is becoming antiquated. Yet many graphics systems from Autodesk to Adobe still use it. Somebody has got to figure out a new terminology to differentiate stereoscopic 3-D from dimensionally simulated graphics that really exist in flatland.

One exhibit did redefine 3-D for me. The folks at Immersive Mediaare the ones behind Google's Street View on the Web, and they were able to give Googlers a 360-degree view using a camera rig that looks like a dodecahedron. Everything around it was recorded simultaneously. That's cool enough. Then they put head gear on me with lenses in front of my eyes and ran a sequence shot by a helicopter flying over a mountain range. As I turned my head, the images in the lenses followed the movement. Look up, look down, and it really felt as if I were in that helicopter thousands of feet in the air. There is nothing stereoscopic about it, but the illusion was fascinating.

The most baffling 3-D exhibit I saw was in the rear of the Central Hall where a giant LED screen with 3-D sports sequences on it loomed over the gawkers. Yes, attendees were handing out RealD glasses, and yes when you watched through their polarized lenses the depth illusion was impressive. But imagine hanging this monstrosity in a public area or a stadium, where I presume it is intended. Anyone without 3-D glasses would just be annoyed. Maybe someone thinks we are going to walk around with polarized glasses in our back pockets. Oh, wait a minute. Those aren't the kind we are going to use at home anyway.

So I am coming to the conclusion that the best reason that "This is the Year of 3-D" is simply that these folks would have nothing else to trumpet to the marketplace. HD has been accepted as a mainstream medium, and the support technology for its production has become mature. Just like the movie theaters, the home TV production chain needs a new product to sell. But I just keep asking, once the fad aspect has worn off, will we be scratching our heads asking, "Quo vadis?"