The Time is Right for a 3D Content Delivery Standard

If CES and recent press are any indication, 2009 is the year that 3D content moves seriously into the home. New 3D displays and systems were among the hottest buzz at the show, both for video and gaming content. For PCs, graphics cards are being outfitted with the needed 3D support, and new 3D-capable displays were in abundance at the show. For TV displays, manufacturers are promising 3D-capable products at little increase in cost. Samsung, Panasonic, LG, Sony, Mitsubishi and others showed off 3D displays on the show floor. Eager to attract more theatergoers, film studios have a significant backlog of 3D titles they will release to cinemas, both new and re-processed, including the Star Wars saga. This increased awareness makes for a "perfect storm" of new consumer product rollout — content, hardware, and affordability.

What is missing, however, is a convenient and immediate way to deliver the content to the home. By far, the medium with the highest penetration is the DVD, but its bandwidth cannot support the data rate needed for viable 3D playback. Blu-ray is the logical candidate for a medium, and 3D content could be the shot-in-the-arm that the format needs to lift sluggish disc sales and rentals. Two powerhouses — Panasonic and Dolby — have announced at CES solutions for a 3D Blu-ray format, but here’s the rub: they’re not compatible, and the differences are like apples-and-oranges.

The Panasonic system, called the 3D Full HD (3D FHD) Plasma Home Theater System, delivers full 1080p left- and right-sided images all the way from recording to playback and display. The company has also developed the authoring technology needed to produce the discs. However, 3D content encoded with this process cannot be played back on existing Blu-ray players, and this means that a new 3D Blu-ray Disc (BD) player and disc encoding format is required. Panasonic has asked the BD Forum to standardize their 3D approach - but this takes time and requires a consensus for final acceptance.

Dolby, however, is proposing a different approach to encoding 3D content, using the existing standard Blu-ray disc medium and standard Blu-ray players. The technique uses diagonally-subsampled versions of the left and right images, which are then re-integrated into complete frames, a method called "checkerboarding" (or more technically, quincunx spatial subsampling). The technique is compatible with current popular online and downloadable file formats, and uses a similar data footprint as a standard Blu-ray movie. In addition, it does not require changes to the Blu-ray, HDMI or MPEG specifications, and, according to Dolby, does not require an external decoder box. Since none of the current generation of 3D-ready DLP or plasma TVs contains a 3D decoder for any format, Insight Media believes any 3D-ready TV would require an external decoder, however, even with the Dolby encoding format. While the Dolby system does not offer the "full-HD-resolution" promoted by Panasonic, the presentation quality could be sufficient to support a viable 3D experience.

While the choice of a disc format may be separable from alternate delivery channels such as Internet downloading, it does affect the display. DLP-based PTVs that support the "checkerboard" format are already in the market, and new 120Hz displays could be developed that support both this and the full-HD format, again at little incremental cost. But a format war would be disastrous to the 3D concept, given the current state of the economy. Without assurance that their purchased format will have viability, few consumers would be willing to shell out for a device that could quickly become obsolete. And waiting for a standard (or worse, building a product without it), will create further uncertainty, when some manufacturers are ready to roll out product now. Perhaps the best migration path would be to start with the checkerboard format and add a full-HD format later, as a standard matures. We can’t afford a disc format war this year.

By Aldo Cugnini, DisplayDaily