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What's a stereographer?

Let the hype begin! The International CES Show has come and gone, and the 3-D juggernaut has now left the station. 3-D technology seemed to permeate every nook and cranny at the show in any vision-related consumer electronics booth. From still cameras to displays and from computer gaming to Blu-ray disks, eye-popping content abounded. The industry has sown the seeds of must-have technology, and the Consumer Electronics Association — the industry's official trade organization — is already predicting sales of 4 million 3-D television sets in 2010.

Reigning in such unabashed enthusiasm and promotion are flipside comments such as that by blogger and freelance copywriter Otis Maxwell, who, when discussing 3-D TV said, “My prediction is this is like the hot girl you're never going to bring home to meet mom.”

3-D content

As with any new visual media technology, it is always all about content. 3-D content today is essentially limited to 3-D film libraries. While there are technologies being advertised and companies offering services, 2-D to 3-D upconversion is a mixed bag. To do it effectively, it's a very expensive process. Unless money is spent to do it well, consumers will not be compelled to invest in a new display whose 3-D images look like the cardboard cutouts in a child's paper popup book, and that's what a lot of today's 2-D to 3-D upconversions look like. Compare that to the 3-D IMAX experience presented by the movie “Avatar,” and you will quickly conclude that there is no comparison. It's like T-ball vs. the World Series, or school soccer vs. the World Cup.

That brings up the question of whether 3-D is a theater experience where the revenue return can support high production value content and its attendant high production cost. George Lucas has recently been quoted as considering rereleasing the “Star Wars” franchise in 3-D. You can bet that if he does, there will be untold millions spent on delivering a viewing experience that technically will be as memorable as that of “Avatar.”

But even in a large-screen venue, 3-D still has problems. A small percentage of viewers of “Avatar” in 3-D IMAX complained of headaches and nausea. And then there is the recent debacle of 3-D football on the giant screen at Cowboys Stadium, where it had to be turned off after just 10 minutes because of the headache and nausea complaints and the boos of the fans watching it.

But back to content; the transition to HD had a federally mandated transition to digital transmission facilitating its widespread adoption. Movies and existing television series' archives also provide a wealth of content for respectable SD-to-HD conversion. Series originally shot on film can readily be remastered to HD. This is not the case going from 2-D to 3-D, at least not for a discernibly acceptable product.

For new content, 3-D production has its unique challenges. In a recent discussion with producer Ted Kenney, whose credits among others include the movie “U2 3-D” and NBC's “Chuck” episode in 3-D, he shared some of the unique 3-D production challenges. For example, because 3-D uses twin capture lenses, his production company, 3ality Digital, found it necessary to develop software to measure the lenses' optical centers and make sure that they matched. Also, when doing cuts between cameras during a shoot, he needed to ensure that the depth planes matched one another to preclude a nausea-inducing artifact in the program material. For 3-D production, he has found it necessary to create a new position — what he calls a stereographer. The role of the stereographer, whose main function is the proper use of depth, includes everything from making sure there is no mismatch between the zoom ratios in twin lenses to measuring on-set depth levels. 3-D production requires major changes in the creative process.

What's next?

So, where does all this leave the broadcaster? Well, there are no standards, and every standards body from SMPTE to MPEG to the EBU all have active working groups and subcommittees, but they are not close to adopting anything soon. While neither the polar opposite views of the CEA nor Otis Maxwell may prove to be prescient, with all the elements behind this current 3-D push, we are bound to land somewhere in between. And even that “somewhere” is a long way off. In the meantime, enjoy that odd 3-D movie or PC game, and don't worry about it until the advent of what we know the real market driver will be: 3-D porn.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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