SMPTE 3-D conference provides roadmap for 3-D landscape

At the recent engineering conference hosted by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) in New York City, a number of camera technologies for acquiring stereoscopic 3-D images, both established and future-forward, were presented to a highly attentive audience. For the engineers in attendance, eager to get a handle on the tidal wave of information now becoming available and to see innovation in its prototype phase, it provided a good look at the merging worldwide 3-D landscape and how science is helping to bring “comfortable” content to movie and TV screens around the world.

The international strength of the SMPTE membership was in full view; the conference brought presenters from Russia, France, Spain and the United States to weigh in on the first day of the two-day meeting.

In the area of image acquisition, the general consensus was that while the industry is currently struggling with large two-camera rigs that require lots of external processing, a single camera and single lens with internal dual signal processing was the preferred (although not yet practical) form factor for a high-quality device that can capture all types of 3-D shots.

The conference covered topics including interocular distance (the space between a 3-D camera system's lenses, which in many systems try to mimic the human head); avoiding fatigue and the adverse symptoms caused by viewing 3-D content; stereo image acquisition using a ring or semicircle of both still and video cameras in a connected array; 3-D Flash LIDAR camera technology (heretofore used in manufacturing and elsewhere) that acquires data (range and intensity) of every point and object in the camera's field of view without scanning; and a scientific study into humans' sensitivity to monocular occlusions and the implications for stereo 3-D content creation.

Panasonic gave a presentation on its new 3D-A1 camcorder, revealing that it made some compromises inside the camera (1/4in sensors and fixed lens distance) to make 3-D production easily accessible to a wider production community that might not have access to the expensive camera rigs (both beam-splitter and side-by-side versions) that have been used on most of the live 3-D broadcast produced thus far.

“The idea is to provide a camera for people with less experience to get there and make some mistakes and learn the process and techniques of making good 3-D content,” said Michael Bergeron, strategic technical liaison for Panasonic Broadcast. The camera can converge images internally, avoiding expensive, albeit higher-quality, alternatives.

Another company called Photon-X showed its new Photon-X technology used in military and homeland security applications, which uses a single camera and a modified focal plane array to record highly accurate 3-D geometry data in real time. The spatial phase imaging technology has been in the works for 10 years and produces high-resolution 3-D representations of live-action subjects on a uniform grid. The new focal plane system measures both the color and phase response of a scene. This allows it to be used in security applications to detect emotions in people's faces and display detail in extremely high quality.

“Using highly accurate date metrics, we can tell not only if you smiled, but if your smile was a genuine one or not,” said Blair Barbour, founder and president of Photon-X, “based on the how your facial muscles move.”

Later in the day, Paul Judkins, director, technical film projects and software architect with IMAX, explained how 2-D movies are made into 3-D. It was stated that the painstaking and time-intensive process costs about $50,000 to $100,00 per minute of film to convert. (“Superman Returns” in 2006 was its first 2-D-to-3-D film conversion project.) The company's' DMR technology was also discussed. The technology enhances a 35mm image for display in the 70mm format for large-screen display in specially equipped (two film or digital projectors side by side) IMAX theaters. The technology is also being considered for 3-D TV broadcasts to the home.

Several different speakers referred to 2010 as the “Gold Rush” year for 3-D content creation and distribution round the world. The challenge is making all of the current prospecting pay off.