3D Reality Sets In

After a flurry of announcements from programmers, operators and TV set-makers at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show about their plans to launch new 3D high-definition channels, network engineers and technology vendors are now grappling with the reality of how to produce and deliver 3D content cost-effectively using as much of their existing 2D infrastructure as possible.

“There are always the minor details of how to implement things,” said Ahmad Ouri, chief marketing officer for Technicolor, which has created a platform for producing 3D Blu-ray discs in Los Angeles as well as a 3D testbed in London for broadcast applications such as live ingest and logo insertion. “It's always easier to announce things and figure out how to do it after the fact.”

The newly formed MPEG Industry Forum 3DTV Working Group held its first meeting at CES, to discuss a standards-based model for transmitting 3D to the home; vendors such as Panasonic and JVC showed professional 3D production equipment alongside consumer products in their booths at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Network executives could also be seen checking out the latest 3D sets all across the CES floor, some of which have the ability to convert 2D to 3D content directly in the set.

There are plenty of networks in hurry-up mode, though some are further ahead than others. After two years of testing, ESPN plans to launch its 3D channel, ESPN 3D, in June. That's about the same time that DirecTV will introduce three 3D channels (two linear, one on-demand) with content from CBS, NBC, MTV, AEG, HDNet and Fox Sports. And Discovery will launch a new 3D channel in partnership with Sony and IMAX next year.

CBS Senior VP of East Coast Operations Bob Ross said that CBS is still in the early stages of formulating its 3D plans. He was canvassing the floor at CES, checking out myriad 3D sets as well as new professional 3D gear, such as a Panasonic 3D HD camcorder with two lenses for capturing the left- and right-eye feeds necessary for 3D. “I've seen more 3D than I can take,” Ross said.

There is much to figure out. According to Ross, CBS still isn't sure what 3D format it will deliver. The choices are full resolution to each eye, which would require more bandwidth; or frame-compatible 3D, which uses spatial compression to squeeze 3D within standard HD capacity by putting the left- and right-eye images either side by side or one on top of the other. “You either have to give something up to do it, or double the rate,” he said.

Many early 3D sports productions haven't included graphics, but Ross noted that graphics of scores and live statistics are essential to sports coverage. On the other hand, some of the graphics produced in early 3D broadcasts have been overwhelming. “Where the graphic sits in the 3D plane is pretty important,” he said.

Set-top software and conditional-access vendor NDS was tackling the same issue in its demo suite at the Wynn hotel, demonstrating how program guides and closed-captioning might best be presented in 3D. “We're looking at how we cope with 3D when it becomes a service,” said Steve Tranter, VP of broadband and interactive for NDS.

Instead of a “safe area” for closed-captioning, 3D programmers will have to maintain a “safe volume” between captions and other objects in the picture, according to Tranter, so they don't mash together. Measuring how far a 3D graphic travels along the “z-axis”—a horizontal line going straight into and out of the TV—is also important. NDS' research indicates that a graphic shouldn't appear to travel farther than 25% of the distance between the viewer and the TV screen. Any closer seems uncomfortable.

NDS showed a 3D program guide that was arranged like a stack of tiles. Clicking on the top tile would send that one shooting off the screen to unveil the one beneath. But instead of aiming directly at the viewer, the tile graphic went off at an angle, aimed somewhere over the viewer's left shoulder. The intention, again, was to avoid viewer discomfort that Tranter described as the “flinch factor.”

Panasonic used CES to formally unveil the type of product it would normally show at NAB, a fully integrated “Full HD” 3D camcorder that it will begin shipping in the fall for $21,000. The company will begin taking orders in April. The twin-lens unit, which is capable of capturing simultaneous 1080-line progressive feeds for the left and right eye, relies on solid-state storage and weighs less than six pounds, making it much more compact that existing 3D camera rigs, which generally incorporate two separate full-size HD cameras.

Greg Boren, a senior systems sales engineer with Panasonic Broadcast, demonstrated the camera in conjunction with a 3D monitor and active-shutter glasses. The camera has a remote control that can be used to adjust the “convergence point,” the point at which the left and right lens' optical axes converge to produce 3D images. Boren said the remote-control feature could be used by a director in a production truck to dynamically adjust depth of field, or simply to match the images coming from different 3D cameras. “It can be used as a creative tool or simply to solve problems,” he said.

Along with Ross, senior executives from Fox, ESPN and Turner visited the Panasonic booth to check out the new $21,000 camera. It was on display in a prominent corner of a central 3D display that included a demonstration of DirecTV's new service and a bevy of other 3D content, including Blu-ray movies.

“There's been a lot of interest,” said Boren, who predicts a busy year for 3D production.

Another professional product attracting network engineers' attention at CES was the JVC IF-2D3D1 Stereoscopic Image Processor, which acts as a real-time 2D-to-3D converter and will begin selling in March for around $30,000. Housed in a 1RU metal cabinet, the device can convert 2D into any of four 3D mixed formats for stereo video output on a compatible device: line-by-line, side-by-side-half, above-below, and checkerboard.

The device works by analyzing a “whole set of elements,” including color and motion interpolation, in a frame of video and assigning them different numerical values, said JVC assistant VP Dave Walton. Part of the trick is closely analyzing color; once a blue sky is identified, for example, it is automatically put in the background. JVC is also licensing its 2D-to-3D conversion technology to other manufacturers, such as 3D decoder chip manufacturer Sensio Technologies.

Filling the gaps

JVC isn't suggesting that its real-time 2D-to-3D converter is a one-stop solution to the 3D production challenge. Instead, the company thinks it could be used as a handy tool to fill gaps in 3D production where it might be prohibitively expensive to set up a full stereoscopic camera, such as on a blimp camera, or as a way to speed the conversion of archived 2D content to 3D in post-production. Another important application is live monitoring for 3D production, as the box can feed separate, synchronous camera outputs to a 3D-capable display.

“You couldn't just put this on the output of a production truck,” Walton said. “But there are shots that you will convert gracefully with this box.”

According to Walton, conversion products like JVC's, and similar technology from HDlogix, have quickly created a “magic box philosophy” among some programmers about how effective 2D-to-3D conversion can be. He aimed to dissuade that, pointing out each flaw in the box's output during a brief demonstration at the JVC booth. He emphasized how important maintaining quality would be to 3D, particularly in its early days.

“People don't want to watch bad 2D, but they can still watch it all day long,” he said. “But wait until they see bad 3D—then they'll get headaches and nausea. So there's no room for bad 3D. There's either good 3D or no 3D.”

E-mail comments toglen.dickson@reedbusiness.com