The 3-D Skeptic at NAB 2010

Arriving in Las Vegas, I was somewhat disappointed not to see the halls of the Convention Center floating above the desert skyline like the Hallelujah Mountains in Avatar. The preshow hype of “This is the year of 3-D” has become a mantra for NAB 2010 with the hope of revitalizing equipment providers' bottom lines with a rush into home-delivered 3-D as powerful as the HDTV onslaught. Maybe, maybe not.

Right up front let me state I am a skeptic about glasses-based 3-D in the home ever becoming a mainstream medium. Yes, I know that saying such a blasphemy from the floor of the NAB 2010 convention has to be voiced in hushed tones, so I approach this blog in the hope I will be proven wrong.

As my research assistants and I scour the halls of this mammoth techfest, we will be trying to bring you our impressions of this watershed event. Even in the first of the press conferences held Saturday around the Vegas strip, several companies popped the 3-D bubble. For example, Grass Valley insisted it was going to support 3-D with its switchers and infrastructure, but it had no 3-D camera or edit system capable of handling Z-space images.

Let me be clear: 3-D is a great event medium. Like most, for me the beauty of the images in Avatar made me a fan of the theatrical experience and proved worthy of the premium ticket price. But will home viewers be willing to spend a considerable extra chunk of their household budget for a display whose ancillary value can only be enjoyed once you have put on those awkward glasses? I’m skeptical.

Yes, at least three network entities have announced plans for 3-D home delivery. But have you seen this weekend’s Masters golf tournament in 3-D? If so, did you think the added depth enhanced your enjoyment of Tiger’s return, or was it merely an interesting gimmick? Previous tests of broadcasting football games in 3-D have revealed significant aesthetic drawbacks, such as the disorientation of sideline shots. Can you really imagine seeing glasses-based 3-D in a sports bar?

To make things ever more dicey there are at least three major incompatible presentation technologies for home 3-D viewing that are predicted to be displayed at NAB 2010, and a final “standardization” is a few years away. That is if such divergent camps as shutter-glasses proponents can ever reconcile with the polarized-lens camp. So there is a good chance that even if home 3-D set sales do take off, some early adopters may find themselves with Betamax sets in a world of VHS displays.

To be fair, DisplaySearch, a major market research firm, has increased its 2010 forecast for 3-D-capable TV shipments to grow from 2.5 million 3-D-capable TVs shipped in 2010 to 27 million sets in 2013 with North America accounting for more than half of shipments in 2010.

Although a skeptic, I am not a cynic. Home 3-D will be great for gamers, maybe teleconferencing, and for those who have to stay a step ahead of the Joneses. It’s just that the first time you invite the neighbors over for a Super Bowl party and discover that you have four sets of glasses for six guests, and that those who brought their 3-D specs can’t get them to work with your set, it may dawn on you that your home 3-D installation is as useful as that swimming pool in your back yard that hasn’t been used since the first summer you dug the pit.

But the adventure of NAB has never been predicated on predictable certainties. There is a whole list of new introductions my research assistants and I are eager to report to you about.

For example, several companies including JVC and DDD have promised very enticing systems that can extract 3-D from 2-D content on the fly. This may alleviate the content logjam in feeding the voracious appetites of promised 24/7 3-D home delivery.

HDI will debut its laser-driven 100in 2-D/3-D Switchable Dynamic Video Projection Television, which features a greater-than-HD resolution, using HDlogix’s proprietary ImageIQ 3D conversion technology. It should be a joy to view.

Panasonic previewed a cost-efficient all-in-one 3-D camera rig last year, and we hope to see its shippable incarnation at NAB 2010.

Sony will undoubtedly have incredible new 3-D monitors on display, there are high hopes for Avid to finally give editors true 3-D tools in their cutting bays, and who knows what rabbits Quantel will pull out of its hat?

My nose is especially going to be sniffing after autostereoscopic (glasses-free) displays, but again with some skepticism. In the past I have been privileged to have seen technology presentations of autostereoscopic displays whose capabilities so far exceeded anything commercially available that it convinced me this technology will never be practical. That’s because 3-D is not really created on the screen. It is created in the mind of the viewer, and to conjure up this illusion, each eye has to be presented with a discrete image. Maybe some kid in Brooklyn has figured out a way around this that nobody has heard of yet, but as the current technology stands, you have to separate those images in some way. Be it shutter glasses, polarized lenses, or even the cardboard divider of grandpa’s stereopticon, that current technology dictates that can’t be done with the naked eye.

I do have one fantasy, however, that could overcome the “can’t see it without the glasses” conundrum of home 3-D. Will anyone figure out a way of creating a display that produces 2-D and 3-D images at the same time? Sure, there are many “switchable” designs, but I am envisioning something that goes both ways simultaneously. Consider the potential of an extremely fine lenticular filter over a digital display that gives you 2-D from one angle and 3-D from a different viewing perspective. Possible? Hey, Vegas is the land of dreams.

So stay tuned to this daily blog. We are going to try to bring you all the thrills of chasing 3-D at NAB 2010 without the long hours and sore feet from actually walking the halls. It’s going to be fun!