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NAB and the 3-D buzz

I was chatting with a friend about the buzz at NAB, and he said, “This 3-D stuff is much more interesting than 3Gb/s.” I agree. Not only are there engineering issues to overcome, but perhaps the bigger problem lies with making the human perception of stereoscopic television as realistic as possible so it's a pleasure to watch.

It calls for new shooting techniques and the resolution of a number of issues around the keying of graphics that never existed before. Many answers have been found, but the additional product cost over 2-D must be reduced to make it a viable business proposition. Just as HD had a premium over SD in the early days, 3-D needs larger crews for acquisition and more time in post, which increases the cost.

Although many people tell me it will never be successful, 3-D products and services are going to star at NAB. There is no doubt that the need to wear active or passive glasses is a stumbling block for many, but the indications are that many viewers will be prepared to don the eyewear for appointment TV. Sure, it's not appropriate for general viewing — such as the news at breakfast or light, daytime entertainment — but for special events such as sports, within a few years 3-D may become as commonplace as HD viewing. It looks like the initial transmissions will be appointment TV largely because there is a serious lack of content. Even movie production is paced due to the lack of 3-D equipped theatres.

Just recently I visited Technicolor's London facility to see a 3-D playout suite. This is just one of the many links in the broadcast chain from the rather curious looking “rigs” through to the viewer display. Playout has a special set of new problems to be solved. Where do you place closed captions and subtitles in the Z-axis? They cannot be simply keyed over video as they may clash depth-wise with the pictures. How do you transition in and out of breaks? How are interstitials handled? And what about coming-next snipes? The Z-axis introduces a level of complexity that must be solved to avoid upsetting viewers with pictures that are uncomfortable to watch — and no broadcaster wants to turn off viewers.

In the cinema, 3-D is a done deal, but for television, especially live events, it's just starting out, and NAB is the showplace for all the hardware and software that makes it a reality for the entire production chain.

Mobile TV is not to be left out. Technicolor was also showing a prototype mobile device with an autostereoscopic display — just the gadget for those who like to watch a two-hour blockbuster on a 3in wide screen (if the battery holds out)!

I have always been fascinated with the human visual system ever since I studied the neural physiology of the visual system along with the mechanisms of color vision at university. The encoding in the retina, and the processes in the visual cortex, make our most sophisticated codecs look rather crude. The world we see has been transmitted to the brain through about a million nerve fibers, half the number of pixels in a 1080p video system, yet we perceive an apparently much higher resolution picture. We can recognize faces in a flash, perform complex motion tracking when we play ball games and operate over an incredible brightness range. Not only that, but we use many clues beyond stereo vision, visual and from experience to build a three-dimensional picture of our surroundings — damn clever, eh?

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