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The 3-D Skeptic ... is still skeptical

NAB 2010 has been an absolutely fantastic experience, and I leave Las Vegas tired of foot but thrilled of mind. The days have been jammed by encounters with new technology and, more importantly, new thinking about a new medium — stereoscopic 3-D broadcasting and its home display. My skepticism about its ultimate acceptance as a mainstream medium that will someday replace 2-D has not dissipated, but that is truly skepticism, not just cynicism. The electric excitement about tackling a new medium has sparked this year's whole NAB convention from exhibit booth to meeting room to conference hall, and there is no doubt some brilliant minds are devoting their best efforts to give 3-D TV every chance of success.

As documented over the past four days in this blog, equipment manufacturers are stepping up to the plate in hopes of finding new markets for their products. Take, for example, 3ality Digital, which was behind a lot of the functionality of the new NEC 3-D truck outside the Sony booth in the Central Hall. At its own exhibit in the South Hall (the part of the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center where most of the upstart innovations can usually be found) 3ality Digital was touting its new shoulder-mounted TS-5 3-D camera rig, an over/under design optimized for close-up work since one imaging unit sits on the videographer's shoulder and the other rests on the front of the chest. This configuration combines balance with mobility and features the same capabilities as 3ality Digital's full-sized camera systems.

To record those 3-D signals you could use the new Matrox Multi I/O cards which let you input up to four multirate 3G/HD/SD-SDI channels in a single PCIe slot on a Mac Pro platform. The Matrox Multi cards let you do with a Mac what could previously only be accomplished on a PC, thereby making the stored material easily accessible to a Final Cut Pro edit system among other NLEs. The Matrox Multi cards are supported by the Matrox Software Development Kit (SDK) for Mac, so we can expect further development.

If you want an even more robust, dedicated storage system, DVS brought out its SpycerBox Ultra for the first time at NAB. Configured as a NAS or "SAN in a box" solution, SpycerBox Ultra is offered with the choice of high-performance SAS or high-capacity SATA drives. The SAS configuration offers 14.4TB of storage and the SATA drives up to 48TB. If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind that the RED ONE camera is the new darling of many 3-D videographers and a 10-minute clip recorded in 4K can take up 20GB on disk. The new world of 3-D production requires a quantum leap in the concept of file sizes.

Of course, during post production you will probably need to render your intensive 3-D graphics, animation, and compositing workflows, so the good folks at BOXX Technologies have brought out what they call a "personal render farm" in their compact desktop BOXXpro. Powered by dual six-core or dual quad-core Intel Xeon 5600 series processors, BOXXpro is expandable up to 192GB of memory for lightning-fast performance even with the most demanding 3-D images.

Still, despite all that production power, if 3-D broadcasting's voracious needs are ever going to be fulfilled it's a good bet that television's existing 2-D content will find a ready market if someone can repurpose it in 3-D at a reasonable cost. Films such as Clash of the Titans were shot in 2-D and converted to 3-D at a cost of millions of dollars, far above the budgets of episodic TV. But a company called DDD (once known as Dynamic Digital Depth) has pioneered real-time 2-D-to-3-D conversion technology, and its new 3D Factory system can bring those costs down to the range of tens of thousands of dollars for an hour's show. That's because 3D Factory extracts the depth information automatically and then lets the operator manually specify the convergence points in each scene. The company's demo in the South Hall produced an impressively convincing illusion of depth from 2-D-originated material.

Let's not forget the audio requirements of such an undertaking. DTS Digital Entertainment has come up with a ground-breaking plug-in for audio mixing systems called Neural Surround UpMix, which can output 5.1 or 7.1 multichannel audio from even existing stereo sources. You will probably hear the result when reissues of popular TV episodics become available on 3-D Blu-ray discs.

Broadcasting those 3-D signals is another daunting consideration, and as the 3-D landscape evolves, content creators hoping to turn a profit have to consider bandwidth requirements ranging from full HD in 1080p to images tailored for a cell phone. That's why I was impressed with a company called Telairity. Its AVC broadcast encoders demonstrated a very acceptable 3-D signal at rates as low as 5Mb/s. That can squeeze a lot of 3-D imagery into a broadcaster's allotted spectrum space.

Or consider Smooth Streaming, an IIS Media Services extension used by first used by Microsoft to deliver on-demand video of the 2008 Summer Olympics for I made a point of seeking it out at NAB 2010 because its adaptive streaming technology optimizes image delivery by dynamically monitoring local bandwidth and video rendering performance. As a result, Smooth Streaming can provide the best of 3-D content delivery by switching video quality in real time.

I began this blog adventure with the hope of finding a display that could provide both 2-D and 3-D imagery simultaneously, thereby justifying the increased price of 3-D home TVs by giving them value even to those who don't want to wear special glasses. That has proved to be a forlorn quest so far.

However, I don't want to conclude our mutual journey to NAB 2010 without mentioning what was probably the most intriguing new display seen during the show — even if it was "just" 2-D. I had heard rumors about the new PRM-4200 professional reference monitor that Dolby (yes, the audio folks) have been promising, and believe me, it lives up to all its predictions. Benefitting from the best of RGB LCDs with LED illumination, it may well be the critical evaluation monitor that can finally replace the CRT, even for the most golden of eyes.

At 42in, the PRM-4200 incorporates a dual-modulation scheme, modifying both the brightness of the LEDs and localized dimming of the LCD crystals. It gives you blacks that seemed to rival the best of cathode ray scanners with a crispness to the image that dazzles the eye.

Those whose work requires this incredible level of display will also appreciate that Dolby's PRM-4200 has two custom modes that can allow the user to emulate any other specific display through 3-D lookup tables (LUTs).

Ooops! There we go again. The term "3-D LUT" has nothing to do with stereoscopic visualization. Instead, in the film industry, the term 3-D LUT refers to a way to calculate preview colors for a monitor or digital projector to determine how an image will be reproduced on the final film print. A 3-D LUT is a 3-D lattice of output color values with each axis representing one of the three input color components.

Is that confusing enough? Perhaps that is a good place to end this blog. If there is one thing that NAB 2010 revealed it is that there is a whole bunch of diversity as to what "3-D" means. And that is just on the professional side, long before the technology has really been introduced to the mainstream public.

But hey, that is what makes this journey so fascinating. We stand on the precipice of what may be the beginning of a new medium. On the other hand, a whole bunch of investment capital may be headed down the drain with one big yawn from the public.

So here is my one big, final prediction. The catch phrase for next year's NAB will not be 3-D. It will be (drum roll please) IPTV. It won't be the content of this industry that drives future development, it will be new forms of delivery. And then Katy bar the door!

This is LT Martin, signing off from Las Vegas.