Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Several manufacturers unveiled stereo-3D features in their latest versions at the IBC show, but as Andy Stout reports, the medium is still very much in its infancy.
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by Andy Stout



It will have been no surprise to anyone that has been paying even the slightest attention to the broadcast and film industries over the past year that September's IBC show in Amsterdam was all about 3D stereoscopic.

This, after all, had been the place where it first really kicked off last year when Quantel wowed an enormous crowd at the Krasnapolsky Ballroom with a 3D stereo display, and people started seriously checking the numbers coming back from 3D presentations at the theatres.

It was also the first big post-Beijing Olympics tradeshow, and there was a definite sense that manufacturers were trying to find something with which to enthuse the crowds now that HD is seen as such a done deal.

But while the conference strand was abuzz with talk of all things 3D stereo, one of the things that quickly became obvious is that 3D is niche technology still and the numbers aren't huge — certainly not big enough on their own to keep a large company away from the rocks in the current financial climate.

So what was there out and about on the show floor? First off, pretty much all the major post manufacturers yet to jump on this particular bandwagon announced software toolkits to deal with 3D.

Autodesk added one to the Lustre 2009 release and emphasised that the company had a holistic stereoscopic film pipeline that spanned 3D CGI as well; Avid added one to the v10 release of DS; da Vinci unveiled a stereo 3D-friendly version of its Resolve-R , the R-3D; while Assimilate highlighted the work done on 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth' using its Scratch tools, not to mention last year's hit "U2-3D." As usual with any step change like this there is also a chance for a relative outsider to move centre stage, and there was a fair amount of interest in the 3D stereo capabilities of Spanish company SGO and its Mistika multipurpose finishing solution.

On the playback side, meanwhile, Iridas announced DualStream as standard on its FrameCycler units, and Transvideo launched a new monitor designed to allow 3D viewing of feeds from two genlocked HD-SDI cameras on location. An anaglyph mode (using two different colours) gives the operator what the company says is a "realistic preview" of the 3D picture. And as far as capture went, while anyone was happy to tell you that their cameras could be lashed into a 3D rig, 3ality announced a deal between WIGE and MikroM and 3ality to demo a 3D wireless production bundle (see next article); and P+S Technik was showcasing its innovative new 3D Mirror Rig, which adapts to fit an impressively wide range of cameras and overcomes some of the limitations of side-by-side shooting.

Conference Talk

Meanwhile, the conference strand was as fixated on 3D stereo this year as it has been on mobile or IPTV in previous years. Approximately 23 major 3D titles are on the slate for 2009, and anybody who saw the live 3D interview from Los Angeles with Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, would probably put money on there being even more. It was an impressive performance in which he made a number of predictions including that in a timeframe of "more than a handful [of years], but less than two handfuls" all movies will be made in 3D stereo; that next spring's "Monsters vs Aliens" will be seen in 3D by 30 percent of its audience; and that, by the time "Shrek 4" comes out in 2010, that figure will have climbed to 80 percent.

This, though, is when the 3D stereo picture becomes a bit more clouded, as even the most optimistic estimates are that only 6 percent of the world's 100,000 cinema screens will be 3D-capable by the end of next year — and those were compiled before the world's economy fell off a cliff.

And yes, those 6000 screens will probably make 3.5 times the money of the normal flatscreens as figures to date suggest, but the consensus at the IBC show was that, if this is going to be a bandwagon worthy of jumping on, then 3D stereo must start appearing in people's houses and on their television screens. This is where the effort really is at the moment: the SMPTE is looking to pin down a spec for a single distribution master; the 3D4you consortium (www.3d4you.eu) is one of a number of organisations looking at different ways of making stereo projection work in the chaotic home environment; and any big manufacturer of consumer goods worth their salt is trying to figure out a way of making it all work.

However, the Broadcast Technology Futures Group was one of the organisations at the convention questioning whether it was all going to be worth it. Speaking under its umbrellas, the EBU's head of emerging media, David Wood, pointed to its two main flaws: knowing what the size of a viewer's display will be and the conflict between the focus and the convergence of people's eyes when viewing 3D.

"The real long-term future of 3DTV — and we are talking 50 years — is object wave recording, a subset of which is the hologram," says Wood. "Object waves have frequency, amplitude and phase. Existing camera sensors can only record amplitude and nobody knows how to record the phase of the lightwave. If we do develop such a system the discomfort factor with watching 3DTV will be solved. There is clearly a lot of interest in 3D, so we have to try and make the least worst stereoscopic system, but it is never going to be perfect."

The BTFG reckons that pursuing Super Hi-Vision and getting that into the home is a more practicable short-term alternative, though at a 7680 x 4320 resolution you have to reckon that it will be a few IBC shows yet before the world's manufacturers start touting real-time SHV image processing.

The last word goes to producer Phil Streather speaking at the session "A production language for 3D," who pointed out that, to date, a mere nine digital 3D stereoscopic movies have been released. Given the small size of that number and the large size of the ones that are predicted to come after, everyone will be watching the performance over the next nine months very carefully indeed.