Will 3D really make it this year?

From The Daily Telegraph to IBC and InfoComm, from the New Scientist to CES and ISE, everyone is talking about 3D.

Will 3D really make it this year?

If a-v’s cognoscenti is feeling a sense of wry deja-vu, they can be forgiven – it’s hardly a new technology. But with even specialist-research house Futuresource Consulting tipping 2009 as the year in which 3D makes its mark (AV, news, February), now is as a good a time as any to ask the all-important question: can corporates make money from 3D? Who really is using it, and why

Well, it depends who you ask: some say yes – companies are already doing so – while others are more reticent.

Certainly the oil, gas and heavy engineering industries have used 3D visualisation for a number of years. The technology allows experts to take a closer look at situations, prototypes or geographical areas without the need – and cost – of shipping a model or physically digging down a hole. The setting for these applications is normally either a projection screen or an all-immersive virtual reality cave.

Trond Solvold is the new product and application manager for 3D and high-end visualisation at projectiondesign, an a-v agency which has worked with the likes of the French Navy on 3D projects. He says: ‘Due to the current economic climate, there have been some moves in the 3D direction because companies are looking for more effective solutions.

’3D gives firms the chance to look at their products more closely and accurately, without the need to physically create the objects required – cars, houses, oil bases, and the like. 3D reduces production time and the product’s delivery to market.’

3D glasses

The movie industry is another big user of the technology. With 3D feature films taking around three times more box-office receipts per screen than 2D versions of the same film, it’s little wonder that the number of 3D cinemas around the world – 5,000 – is expected to triple in the next 12 months, according to Blair Parkin, managing director and founder of a-v consultancy Visual Acuity.

But although he acknowledges that 3D’s consumer popularity is in part driving its use in the areas of medicine, education and even video conferencing with telepresence, he is pragmatic about its universal appeal.

‘Until recently, Christie and Barco had 3D niche projection models in their range, which are terribly expensive but very good; they are still the right choice for certain applications.

‘Now, more and more low-cost 3D technology is being used, it is becoming commoditised and the market is opening up for a-v dealers and the integrator community,’ he says.

But Parkin warns: ‘I don’t think the 3D wagon is so big that everyone should jump on it. There are some 3D projects the a-v industry is well equipped to do, but some need more specialist knowledge. And it’s not a whole new market. It’s similar to 2D applications, just with certain parts of the applications done in 3D.’

As mentioned earlier, the technology is not new: it dates back about 150 years, and started out with 3D postcards, which were mainly used for porn.

3D describes an image that provides some perception of depth. The technology changes the experience of watching TV, a movie or graphics. Let’s clarify here that we are not talking about 3D animation, which is still a 2D image, but rather three-dimensional images that jump off the screen.

To understand its drawbacks, it’s vital to understand how it works.

There are three ways of viewing 3D: with or without glasses, or in the glasses. The methods are: projected stereo (passive or active); direct 3D – where you watch a device, usually a monitor, without the need for glasses; and the more sophisticated head mounted, where you use glasses, but don’t see through them. These feature tiny screens on the left and right eye and are already used to create detailed 3D images for military training.

The passive techniques use two projectors, one for the right eye and one for the left. So one projector only has the content for the left eye, which is viewed through a filter and the other, also with a filter, shows the content for the right. The glasses recompose the image for the brain to understand, so it doesn’t see an out-of-focus picture.

Passive-stereo glasses don’t need any power, but most passive systems do require a screen that doesn’t di-polarise the light, which means a shiny or a silver screen.

‘One of the challenges of using a silver screen is that it tends to produce a hot spot, the centre of the image is brighter than the edges of the image. If it’s well designed, this doesn’t become a significant issue. But there is a fair amount of design work to get that right,’ explains Parkin.

On active stereo, there is no colour separation and the images are sharper. The LCD glasses are powered by a small battery to open or shut the left or right eye to help the brain create the 3D image.

3D cinema

Dolby only launched its 3D technology in the middle of last year and has the largest market orders. Its 3D system is projector agnostic and it works in an ordinary perforated cinema screen, which means the Dolby system can use the same projector and device for 2D and 3D movies.

Apart from 3D projectors, such as those available from projectiondesign, Barco, Christie and Digital Projection, also on the market are monitors and TVs that claim to deliver 3D HD TV into the living room. Called autostereo, their draw back is the viewing angle – you have to be in a sweet spot to see the image correctly – and long periods of use result in a headache. Manufacturers including Mitsubishi, Philips, LG, Hyundai and Samsung are retailing 3DHD displays.

Another downside of 3D TV is that the HD TV sets are no good for it. Consumers will need new sets and the prices are high. 3D TV is travelling a similar path to HD TV, but there is not enough content yet to justify the investment.

While 3D would be ideal for watching programmes such as sports or documentaries, first, the broadcasting industry has to come up with a common standard for the format and a slim way of setting up stereo cameras on their OB units, so they won’t obstruct the view of the general public with a huge, rigged double-whammy camera.

Chances are that we will have the choice to watch the 1012 Olympics on 3D/HD, but there is production work flow and display affordability to sort out still. This means that we’re still some way off before we get iMax in our living rooms.

In the corporate world, while 3D can deliver a genuine wow-factor on digital-out-of-home signage and a new take on usually boring PowerPoint presentations, it needs careful specification.

Elements to take into account include the fact that with 3D systems you need to double up bandwidth, connectivity and switching and network connection. If you are playing back 3D footage, you need two channels of video (for left and right eye). If you are rendering a 3D image live, you will need a graphics board with dual heads, so there are two outputs in one computer. You’ll also need to make sure the infrastructure can support the resolution of the dual image that is being sent down a cable.

This does not necessarily mean doubling costs, but as Rob Leach, director of creative company Line Up, points out: ‘Convincing 3D production costs are high for the corporate market, which wants to spend less. The opportunity to make money from 3D is there, but the project has to be large enough with an absolute need for 3D.’

Visual Acuity’s Blair adds: ‘People don’t understand the base line of how you do 3D and why you do it, so we are in danger of people selling feature benefits to an uneducated client base.

‘You need to research what you are using 3D for, what the choices are. It is an area where you have to get demonstrations on a similar application and a similar sized screen. Then, you can see whether what you are trying to do will work in 3D,’ he says. And whether it’s worth the investment.

First Published on AV Magazine