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3-D isn’t captivating equipment vendors just yet

While most would agree that 3-D TV provides a captivating viewing experience, it became more of an unwanted distraction than a benefit to the companies displaying the technology necessary to produce content for it at this year’s NAB convention. It meant that the crowds clamoring for a chance to don special glasses to get a better view of the 3-D content were not looking at or buying the multitude of digital high-definition products for sale in demo areas right next to it.

Surveying the technology exhibit floor this year it was clear that vendors were challenged with having to display 3-D in order to attract visitors into their exhibit booths, while trying to maintain interest in their existing product lines.

“This year everyone is looking at 3D technology, but nobody’s buying,” said Dave Waddell, national marketing manager at broadcast lens supplier Fujinon. “It makes it a bit tough to show the full range of new lenses we’ve spent a lot of time and money to develop, and which every professional shooter still needs. I think every manufacturer is experiencing the same thing.”

Indeed, the marketing strategy of most equipment suppliers was to provide the necessary 3-D technology (cameras, switcher, routers, servers, and even broadcast cable) for broadcast professionals.

“From a corporate perspective, we have to show that we’re ready when the customer is,” said Neil Maycock, chief marketing manager at Snell, “but it’s clear the broadcast industry is not about to send signal to the home any time soon.”

Most of the demonstrations on the exhibit floor were made up of existing technology reconfigured for 3-D. For example, HD cameras and lenses, the same ones companies like Grass Valley, Ikegami, Panasonic and Sony showed at last year’s NAB, were mounted in all types of 3-D rigs. Those offering 3Gb/s routing switchers in 2009 were touting 3-D infrastructure products this year.

On-air graphics and branding suppliers like Avid, Chyron, Harris, Orad, Pixel Power and Vizrt showed high-resolution, template-based (for ease of use) 3-D production systems, many of which were actually introduced last year.

Traditional 2-D HD video server vendors like Abekas, Avid, Evertz, Grass Valley, Miranda Technologies, Omneon, Quantel and others are now in the 3-D signal recording and distribution game.

And even Belden Cable showed two of its 1694-A HD coaxial cables enclosed in a single configuration for moving stereoscopic 3-D signals.

So, the collective message was that broadcasters could implement 3-D services today using some of the same equipment they already own, with a few minor upgrades (or not) if they so choose.

“As a company we’re all about 3-D going forward, but we do have a full product line we’d like to sell and we think customers understand that,” said Bob Ott, vice president of technology solutions at Sony.

At the NAB Show this rush to “3-D everywhere” is a direct result of the box office success of “Avatar” and the consumer electronics industry’s effort to push 3-D television sets into the home. The professional technology divisions of CE companies like JVC, Panasonic and Sony are being tasked with encouraging their customers to prime the pipeline with 3-D content. More content means more TV set sales. That’s how HDTV got its start.

Yet some companies, while showing 3-D technology, are lamenting the mad rush, because they have other product to sell.

Michel Proulx, chief technology officer at Miranda Technologies (which displayed a full line of 3-D infrastructure and multiviewer products and even presented the first few PowerPoint slides of its NAB press conference in anaglyph 3-D), said he’s not sure the broadcast industry is ready to invest in a new broadcast infrastructure, especially since many facilities have not yet implemented HD technology to its fullest potential.

“I think the consumer electronics companies are moving too fast,” he said, causing a rippling effect throughout the NAB Show.

To ease broadcasters’ concerns, equipment vendors stressed that 3-D signal distribution could be accomplished over existing 2-D infrastructures, using spatial multiplexing techniques. Many are learning from the variety of live sporting events (such as the 2010 Masters Golf tournament that was shown live throughout the convention center in 3-D and looked great) and will continue to learn about the differences between 2-D and 3-D that production crews must become aware of.

“The transition from SD to HD was fairly straightforward and really stimulated by competitive pressures, the move to 3-D is a lot more complicated and the pressures are not there,” said Clyde Smith, senior vice president of global technology and standards at Turner Broadcasting System. “So, I think the transition will happen a lot slower and won’t be as universally embraced within he broadcast industry for home consumption.”

Or, as Hiroshi Yoshioka, executive deputy president at Sony, so eloquently put it, “Making 3-D is easy, making good 3-D is not.” (Underscoring Sony’s company-wide commitment to making 3-D work, Yoshioka has not been to an NAB convention since the introduction of the DVCam format in 1995.)

From the local broadcasters’ perspective — who attended the NAB Show in larger numbers this year compared with 2009, 3-D is clearly valuable to digital cinema owners and large sports networks, but stations have a lot more pressing technical issues (e.g., HD news production and spectrum efficiency) to deal with.

Of course, 3-D production could someday be a windfall for many in the industry, like Fujinon’s Waddell (whose company showed a 3-D synchronization system that uses 16-bit encoders to allow two side-by-side lenses to accurately move in unison), because they would potentially sell double the amount of product.

But he said he’ll enjoy that when he sees it.