CES Report: 3D Hype Gives Way to Progress in Production, Product Design

A morning session at the Consumer Electronics Show this week took a look at 3D-content creation, with industry leaders from ESPN, HBO, 3net, and CAMERON/PACE Group providing an optimistic highlight that, when coupled with some of the developments in 4K and glasses-free 3D sets on the show floor, could leave one thinking that 3D is here to stay and may be a force within two or three years.

“The good news is, the market is evolving in a way that devices, whether TVs or mobile, will be out there by the end of the year,” said 3net President/CEO Tom Cosgrove. “The projection is for 10 million-14 million 3D sets in the U.S. by the end of the year and 90 million globally, so it is up to us to come up with the compelling content to drive interest.”

An Evolutionary Process
The session began with a discussion about the “chicken-and-egg” dilemma facing the 3D market: without 3D viewers, there is little return on investments in 3D programming, but, without 3D-programming investment, there is little incentive to become a 3D viewer.

Bryan Burns, VP of strategic business planning and development for ESPN, who was at the forefront (and on the front lines) of the network’s HD launch in 2003, has seen this movie before.

“It’s an evolutionary process,” he said of the launch of 3D services. “And, while I sometimes think that ESPN may have been on the ramp a year early, clearly, the highway is being built. A higher percentage of HD screens have 3D inside, and, when a base of sets gets into the marketplace, the infrastructure will be in place to drive usage of those sets.”

Developments on exhibit at the show will only continue that 3D evolution. The majority of new sets being introduced at CES this year have 3D as a feature. But two key developments on the show floor pointed to the potential for the 3D format.

At the LG Electronics booth, two new TV sets, a 55-in. OLED set and an 84-in. Ultra HD set, offered four times the resolution of a regular set. But, instead of displaying stunning 2D images on the show floor, the sets displayed high-quality 3D images viewable with passive glasses, a big hint at how next-generation TV sets will make viewing of 3D material more comfortable than ever (it also showed how the major CE makers are not shying away from 3D).

The second development was on exhibit at the Sony booth. Though not part of the official product rollout, a demonstration of glasses-free 3D viewing on a 46-in. flat-panel display with 4K offered the best viewing experience to date of glasses-free 3D. Resolution was rock solid, viewing angles surprisingly wide, and sense of depth palpable.

Prices of the products from LG and Sony are not available, and it is certain that all three will be priced well beyond the average consumer. But there is little doubt that another two or three years of product development will have 2K, 4K, and even 8K displays front and center at CES (and ready to solve such issues as the resolution hit currently suffered by 3D sets in the living room).

Next: Mobile, Handheld
With those products on the horizon, the question of what the topic of conversation will be at next year’s 3D-content session came up. The answer? All agreed that 3D-capable mobile and handheld devices will be a major focus in the next year, along with proper training of production personnel. HBO EVP/CTO Robert Zitter said that the latter has been a major goal as the network begins to focus on what projects are worthy of the 3D plunge.

“We are focusing on new episodes in 3D, rather than going back and converting old episodes to 3D,” he said. “And remember that, today, we are working on productions that will air three years from now. That may not be the way it is with other forms of TV, but it is with ours, so seeing the impact of 3D on-screen will take some time.”

HBO’s 3D offering is currently available only as an on-demand product, which meets the needs of distribution partners always looking to save bits. Each month, viewers can find about seven 3D movies available, and the titles disappear and reappear during the course of the year.

Zitter, like Burns, was on the front lines of the HD transition. And, although he does see the similarities, there is one big difference from HBO’s perspective.

“When we started our 24-hour 3D network, 48% of our network was in true HD,” he said. “And, while motion pictures were not mastered in HD, they were mastered in film, and we could take them and remaster them in HD. That is something we can’t do affordably in 3D.”

It also was four years after the launch of the HD network before an HBO original series (The Sopranos) made the leap to HD.

The Economics of 3D
“We’re looking to see the incremental cost of producing content in 3D be driven down,” Zitter said. “As that happens, the number of sets in the market will help [justify] an increase in the amount of 3D programming available.”

The incremental costs, he added, aren’t related just to equipment. If technical details and changes add three days to the shooting schedule for each episode, the economics quickly unravel.

CAMERON/PACE Group Co-Chairman Vince Pace is working on that. “We are now in the phase of the business where we are concentrating on the economics and [on] finding a model that hits the budget target but without a sacrifice in quality,” he said. “The 3D product suffers much more if the quality bar is brought down, so we want to get the cost of the 3D production down to the cost of a 2D production. And, as the tools get more integrated with each other, we can scale up the amount of 3D production and fill the black hole of 3D content.”

That is one of the reasons Pace has worked hard with ESPN and other network partners on a concept called 5D. In such a scenario, a single production team produces both the 3D and 2D shows, and the 2D program simply takes camera feeds from the left camera in the 3D rig.

“The bottom line is to bring the economics down, because we can’t make the 2D show suffer,” Burns pointed out. “So 5D is a way to get two shows out of one.”

It is also creating new opportunities for developing new 3D tools. In the past 18 months, the Shadow rig from CAMERON/PACE Group has allowed a single camera operator to handle a system that mounts the 3D-lens complement to the 2D camera.

When ESPN and CAMERON/PACE Group produced the Little League World Series in 3D, it became apparent that a smaller rig was needed to get down to eye level of the youngsters playing in the tournament.

“We came up with the Nano rig, which weighs only 14 lbs. and created a new product that didn’t exist three weeks prior to the event,” said Pace. “Comparing productions today to those done a year or two ago, the quality of the productions has improved by a factor of 30.”

Finding a Balance
All four panelists acknowledged that the 3D movement has suffered because of the hype that first hit the CES floor in 2010. At that time, 3D was seen by many as a quick fix for a consumer-electronics product segment — high-end, large-screen HDTV sets — that was seeing profit margins eroded, by lower-end, large-screen HDTV sets from manufacturers like Vizio and Haier.

Last year’s CES show saw many CE companies turn to “smart” and Internet-connected TVs as the next savior. The efforts suddenly had CES feeling less like an electronics show and more like a National Cable Show, with exhibitors focusing on content deals rather than technology.

This year’s show, however, seems to have struck a balance. The connected TVs are now embracing Kinect-like technology to bring gesture and voice control to the TV-viewing experience. Next-generation display devices are hinting at an amazing high-quality visual experience in the living room. And content creators are figuring out what, exactly, they expect to do with such devices and how they can drive ratings in an age when video content is everywhere.

And yes, the hype has returned.

“Don’t think anyone wants to get past the hype,” said Burns. “If you don’t have hype, there is no CES show next year. Hype has to be part of this cycle.”

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