When Will Crisp Digital 3D Movies Come Home?

New cinema technology has enabled eye-popping 3D effects in movies like Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour and Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D. Yet, when those movies arrive on DVD and Blu-ray, the only 3D option is to view them with the kind of old-school analgyphic glasses that offered a novelty 3D effect at the expense of clarity in the frame (and often a headache). Systems for putting 3D playback in the home are fast emerging from companies like Samsung and Philips, but how will the industry decide on a single standard for the home? The Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California (ETC@USC) is stepping up by expanding its recently opened Anywhere/Anytime Content Lab to give studios a place to play with stereo video technology. Film & Video got on the phone with ETC@USC executive director David Wertheimer for a quick chat about going deep with home video.

ETC@USC Anywhere/Anytime Content Lab

First, how do you see this industry weathering the economic slowdown?
In the early days of any recession, people look for escape — ways to lose themselves. And entertainment is a great way for them to do it. In the short term, the box-office is pretty strong, DVD rentals are strong, and digital downloads are growing. The problem is that as a recession wears on people typically start to cut out discretionary spending, including the escapes from their everyday lives. That’s where things get tricky.

Historically, we haven’t seen the same degree of consumer investment in home entertainment. The quality of my equipment here at home is much better than it was 10 years ago.
But a big part of moviegoing has always been the social aspect, the collective viewing experience outside your house. I think you’re right — people are going to have more choices, and we’re tracking how people feel about going out to the movies versus staying at home. But my sense is movies will continue to do pretty well, because it makes people feel good to get out and escape with other people.

That said, we’re not focused on in-theater entertainment. We’re focused on “anytime/anywhere” content consumption.

That’s a good segue for talking about 3D. High-quality digital 3D is something you can get in theaters, but not at home. I understand you’re among the people working to figure out how that transition is going to happen.
Some really interesting market forces are at work. The industry is creating more 3D movies — this year, there are about 12 major 3D releases, and next year there will be about 20. Each of those films costs about 10 to 15 percent more as a 3D film. On a $150 million feature film, you’re paying somewhere between $15 and $22 million to make that film in 3D, and you want more places to recoup that investment. Meanwhile, consumers like you are saying, “Hey, I have a great television set, and I want that experience at home.” And, we have capabilities of manufacturing 3D TVs that we haven’t had before.

So a lot of things are driving the availability of 3D. The most important thing from our perspective is that we want to make sure the experience we deliver to consumers is of the quality they expect. As we bring 3D into the home, it needs to be a very high quality user experience. So the ETC 3D Home Content Lab, which is part of our Anytime/Anywhere Content Lab, is really looking at all the potential technologies to make sure consumers are getting the quality they expect.

The other thing — and this is largely what SMPTE is working on — is trying to establish an appropriate format for home delivery of movies, so that we don’t end up in a format war. If we do those things well, I think consumers will have options for buying TVs with 3D capability.

David Wertheimer

What kinds of features make a TV 3D-ready? Will it require glasses?
This is one of the big debates in the industry. There are competing ways of delivering 3D. On one hand you have systems that require glasses — there are polarized glasses and active-shutter glasses, but glasses of some kind. Today, those systems give you the highest resolution. Passive glasses, which are polarized, can be quite inexpensive. Active-shutter glasses, which are electronic, are significantly more expensive. Both are good options, and both are in use in theaters today. The two major providers in the U.S. today are Real D, which is polarized, and Dolby, which is based on spectral division. Internationally, XpanD is doing active-shutter glasses quite successfully.

Some people are developing what are called multi-view sets [using lenticular lens technology]. Philips calls them “autostereoscopic.” The Philips system is really cool, but currently it comes at the cost of resolution. You have to take the number of pixels available to you on the screen and divide it by the number of views you’re going to get. That causes you to have a lower-resolution image. Philips is marketing it mostly as a professional signage technology. But everyone knows in the long term it has great potential in the home.

But then there’s the issue of creating content for multi-view devices. It’s not a trivial task. You have to create lots of views, and there’s no standard for how many views there should be. Philips has a technology called 2D plus depth. You have a 2D image plus a depth map that tells you what the 3D geometry of the content is, and from that you can impute multiple views.

That sounds interesting for videogame applications. When I saw the technology, I asked Philips about the possibility for tapping into a system’s GPU to get that 3D geometry in real time.
I think gaming is going to drive 3D adoption in a really big way. Once people have the opportunity to play games in really good 3D on a great TV, they’re not going to want to play games any other way.

You mentioned the possibility of a format war, and it does seems like we’re on that road, again. Where does ETC fit into the standards-making process?
We are not the standards body. We try to inform the standards processes by bringing people together in front of the technologies rather than arguing about them in the abstract. We try to create places like laboratories where we have all the technologies, and we get people talking about them and making decisions about the best way to go.

Can we, by ourselves, help avoid the format war? I don’t think so. But SMPTE is looking at whether they can create a format that would be a standard. I think they are entering this process much earlier than they typically would to try to avoid that situation. CEA is looking at standards issues from the manufacturers’ standpoint. And we’re trying to do everything we can to bring our studio partners and everyone else into the discussion. It looks like things are moving in a good direction.

What exactly happens in the 3D Home Content Lab?
We’re building it now. Our goal is to have all of the state-of-the-art equipment, including things that haven’t been released yet, so that the studios and our other member companies can make decisions and inform the standards process. It’s important to have a place where all that stuff exists. Right now, people are only seeing best-case, highly managed demos. We’re trying to create a test suite that is much more objective.

We also have “Anytime/Anywhere” consumer research, where we go out and talk to next-generation consumers about what they’re doing, what entertainment they’re consuming, where they’re getting it, whether they’re paying for it, what devices they’re watching it on, and what devices they wish they had. We’re also going to bring those consumers into the lab to get their feedback. This transition is going to be led by younger consumers. It’s not going to be an over-40 groundswell saying, “I really need to jump on 3D technology.” These technologies appeal to younger generations who will increasingly want to see content in 3D, so that’s where we’ll be concentrating.

What happens in broadcast? Will broadcasters follow the lead of the studios?
I don’t want to speak for SMPTE, but we had someone here from a broadcast network just the other day, and he came into the lab with one of the movie-studio guys. So we’re engaging the broadcasters and studios at the same time. The SMPTE process is the same way. A discussion is going on with all of them engaged, and broadcasters have different needs from the motion-picture studios. The motion-picture people can say, “I want to create the best, highest-quality viewing experience for Blu-ray disc or digital downloads.” The broadcasters are saying, “When we send our signal out, it goes through three different systems that we don’t control, where it gets compressed and munged in different ways. Anything we create has to survive that process.” We can’t afford to look at one without the other.

Do you have any sense for how long a process this is? We’re just starting out — you can already watch Hannah Montana in 3D on Blu-ray, but you’re doing it with anaglyphic glasses. Is there a timeframe that people are expecting to follow?
We’re working with CEA right now to try to come up with an answer to that question. I actually don’t know. It’s going to be an evolution rather than a revolution. People are taking strides in this direction even without tomorrow’s technology. You’re going to see probably two other movies come out on Blu-ray in anaglyph this year, and nobody’s really happy having to do that. There’s another technology called ColorCode 3-D, a successor technology to anaglyph that allows you to run content through a TV and use glasses, but it’s a much better experience than anaglyph ever was. So there are bridge technologies that will help in the short term.

Mitsubishi and Samsung have 3D DLP televisions in the marketplace today, and they will tell you they’ve sold hundreds of thousands of them. But I haven’t heard them say publicly how many people have bought the emitters and glasses to actually use them as 3D TVs. I think the number is very small because the content’s not there. It’s a chicken and egg. It’s hard to say how quickly this will evolve. But people will start to release these movies on inferior technologies. My kids really liked watching Hannah Montana in anaglyph, even though I wasn’t impressed by the technology. So people will get excited by the potential.

By Bryant Frazer, Film & Video