HERE'S A QUESTION for you. If we say 3D game changer we're sure that most of you will think of James Cameron's record breaking Avatar, possibly the first film in a while to be widely acclaimed for its technological merit alone. However, it was the Lumerie brothers, inventors of the cinematograph, who staked the first claim as 3D game changers.
Back in 1895, the Lumerie brothers achieved something James Cameron and his crew were still trying to pull off over a hundred years later. The brothers filmed "L'Arrivée d'un Train", a 50 second shot of a train coming towards their camera. The brothers were trying to achieve a 3D effect on their cinematograph and urban myth has it that the audience ran out screaming to avoid the oncoming train. The legend probably isn't true. The cinematograph wasn't one of the increasingly popular stereoscopic 3D cameras but, as the first to present a realistic 3D scenario on screen they can't be beaten. The brother even went on to reshoot the train in 3D and show the movie at the French Academy of Science.
The history of 3D is littered with obsolete technologies and false dawns. But the difference between Cameron and the Lumerie brothers is that Avatar was released in a 3D ready world. Avatar might have saturated the cultural mindset for 3D but the tipping point was last year's Ice Age 3 in 3D. This was the first film where its 3D release financially outperformed its 2D release and analysts are projecting exponential growth rates and reporting that 3D will be a multi-billion pound industry within the next five-years. This 3D ready world is due to a convergence of resources necessary to seed the right conditions for 3D at the cinema and in the home. The 3D market has matured while costs have dropped, 3D technology has evolved and an eco-system of 3D technology providers has developed, delivering 3D capabilities from production facilities and viewing technologies to broadcast infrastructure.
So is a 3D ready world the best thing since sliced bread? Not quite. The big problem for 3D developers is delivering open standards for punters. When James Cameron said he was waiting for technology to catch up with his vision he wasn't joking. Cameron was literally developing proprietary 3D technology on the fly for Avatar. He commissioned has own Reality Camera System in 2003, which was the first the first 3D HD video camera for the 3D IMAX format, and he used it for shooting Avatar along with his virtual camera system.
The problem with this pioneering method of delivery is that it engenders multiple formats that could bottleneck the delivery of 3D to the viewing public. Are there are so many competing technologies that it has created a Wild West with no standards for creating and viewing 3D?
We spoke to a few key spokespeople working from different angles in the 3D industry to discuss their technology, what they think about the lack of 3D standards, what will be driving the takeup of 3D and where they see 3D going in the next five years.
JDSU is the world's largest producer of optical coatings and developed the 3D filter wheel technology for use in an exclusive partnership deal with Dolby. If you popped along to see Avatar or Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland at a cinema that used Dolby's 3D projection format, you would've been looking through JDSU's filter wheel.
The company is currently basking in the glow of the feel good factor generated by the global success of Avatar. The Wall Street Journal reported in January that JDSU received a stock bump "on favourable sentiment surrounding the fibre-optic sector and as the company received a boost from the success of science-fiction movie "Avatar." Despite the fact that its 3D technology represents only 10 per cent of its overall business, analysts have now pegged JDSU as a potential leader and developer of 3D equipment and optical components. Senior director of global marketing and corporate communications at JDSU, Jim Monroe, went on to tell Dow Jones Newswires, "3D movies have become an emerging trend and the company has factored in the possible increase in business that it will see from more 3D movies being made."
Markus Bilger is the Custom Optics product line manager for the Advanced Optical Technologies business segment at JDSU. He told us that he believes 3D is the next logical progression for viewing as we move away from flat plane 2D, saying, "3D is the next evolutionary step in viewing content. The transition from 2D to 3D is as important as the transition from silent movies to talkies and from black and white to colour."
In 2005, no one could've guessed that the success of a film like Avatar would expedite the takeup of 3D but JDSU was already sitting on its 3D technology. Bilger has been working on the 3D filter wheel project with Dolby and had to wait half a decade for the project to take off. "We first started working with Dolby over five years in Germany as a research and development project. We knew we had the 3D technology ready to go with Dolby but the market conditions weren't financially viable. We had to wait for the convergence of cost, availability and quality hardware to serve as a precondition for 3D. With a mature 3D market is place, JDSU was in a position to roll-out," he said.
Bilger described the technology behind the filter wheel that creates the 3D effect in Dolby's 3D glasses, explaining, "The Dolby 3D glasses feature optical coatings made by JDSU that transmit differerent wavelengths of light to each eye. These coatings correspond to the filter wheel that spins at a rapid pace in the projector thereby creating an immersive realistic 3D experience. The JDSU filter wheel technology works by spinning the filter wheel at a fate rate of speed in the projector thereby creating two different pictures that are projected on to the movie screen. The Dolby glasses that are worn by the viewer in the movie theatre help the viewer see the two at separate times. There's shown at such a fast rate of speed that the human brain actually combines them in to one picture with very good colour balance and depth perception giving a great 3D experience."
While Bilger obviously has the JDSU company line down pat, he was refreshingly honest in his descriptions of the 3D industry. He thought that the huge return on investment for 3D cinema and the fact that it can't be illegally copied yet are not a primary motivator for technology companies because, "It's an artistic endeavor first and foremost."
However, he did think that it was still Wild West times for 3D technology. "Its pioneering days for most companies involved in 3D - from TV and production facilities to filming and viewing," he concluded.
In doesn't help that JDSU leased its filter wheel technology as an exclusive deal with one company when other 3D glass manufactures might benefit from using it. Would the filter wheel even work with competing formats? Dolby 3D technology doesn't require a silver screen and uses specific passive filters with much better colour balance than polarized stereoscopic glasses.
XpanD uses active shutter glasses, which are touted as the upcoming standard for Blu-ray playback for home users and have been backed by most 3D TV display manufactures. Active shutter glasses have polarisation filters and deliver separate images to each eye. They shutter the images alternately for the right and left eye in synch with the refresh rate of whatever display input is being used.
RealD 3D uses a slightly different stereoscopic polarisation technology. These glasses use a circularly polarised light that alternates 144 times per second. Films are recorded in digital and RealD also uses digital projectors.
We haven't even mentioned Sony's use of RealD's new XLS format and Imax 3D, which uses a 3D camera that records left and right-eye images onto two 65mm wide filmstrips to create 3D on a 2D screen. Naturally, you can't walk in to a Dolby 3D theatre and use ReadD glasses just as you can't walk in to an Imax 3D cinema and get 3D on XpanD's glasses. It's no wonder Cameron had to distribute Avatar in every 3D format known to man and dog or he wouldn't have made it past that magic $1 billion mark.
Bilger diplomatically said that JDSUs 3D filter wheel is potentially compatible with other formats. He also insisted that the company is agnostic its approach to 3D and didn't mention any future partnerships with other 3D glasses manufacturers, saying only, "It is possible." He maintained that "JDSU is happy to work with a partner like Dolby that has technology leadership in the theatre space."
While JDSU only offers 3D technology in the optical filter wheel, Sony is moving to 3D from every conceivable angle. Nick Sharples, director of corporate communications for Sony Europe told the Inquirer with evangelical zeal that his company is on a mission to create 3D "from lens to living room."
Sharples is quite enthusiastic regarding Sony's play in 3D. He said Sony has an "unrivalled experience and expertise in 3D, from the 3D camera systems used to film Avatar, through the 4K 3D projectors." He also believes that Sony's history in research and development innovations gives it the edge over other 3D manufacturers. Sony developed modern cameras for 3D filming and a prototype of a single lens 3D camera. For live production of 3D, Sony developed a small processor box that automatically adjusts for parallax errors inherent in live 3D filming. At the cinema, Sony also developed the world's first 4K digital cinema projector, offering four times the resolution of any other projector on the market.
This huge 3D portfolio doesn't even touch on Sony's 3D TVs and forthcoming stereoscopic gaming, but that's a whole other story in itself. In the meantime, Sharples claimed Sony isn't daunted by the huge array of formats on offer for 3D. "Whilst there are Sony specific technologies to enhance the 3D TV picture or the quality of the 3D image seen in the cinema, the underlying technologies used by Sony and our competitors are remarkably similar. There are no major competing technologies in the 3D market, just competing companies," Sharples maintained.
Dr Neil Dodgson, an expert on 3D displays at Cambridge University, agrees with Sharples up to a point. He told the Inquirer, "With regard to 3D projection, it does not matter what technology they use in the theatre, so long as they can play the digital movie files that the studios provide. What is a problem is if there are multiple different formats for the video itself: you do not want to tie yourself to one particular format."
Here is the chief issue for 3D. The battleground for the format war is going to be a bigger predicament in the home than in the cinema. The format issue for 3D cinema is mind-boggling but the 3D we experience in cinemas is a geographical rather than a preferential choice. With the possible exception of an audience travelling to see Imax 3D, very few viewers are going to go the extra mile because they'd prefer to see a 3D film in Dolby 3D rather than active shutter or polarisation. That preferential choice for 3D in the home won't necessarily be about which technology is the best, but about which brand offers the best overall 3D service. This will then turn the 3D format war into a branding war in your front room.
Sharples' claim that there aren't conflicting technologies makes less sense in a 3D home environment. He said, "Active shutter glasses have been chosen by the vast majority of manufacturers for viewing 3D television," and "all 3D TVs will be able to accept any of the delivery formats chosen by broadcasters or satellite/cable operators for their 3D content streams."
Active shutter might become the shared format of choice for 3D glasses in the home but they're not interoperable with other brands and extra glasses cost about £100 to buy separately. No matter how much money you're willing to spend on extra Sony 3D glasses, you won't get them working on other brands. This also goes for LG, Samsung and all the other 3DTV manufacturers using active shutter technology. Particular manufacturers are using particular 3D technologies and tying home viewers to particular content providers. This means we risk getting a fractured ecosystem that will tie end users to different delivery systems when there are many on offer.
Don't despair yet because there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Holy Grail for next generation 3D is viewing without glasses and this has the potential to stop the format war. But don't place any bets yet because a glasses-less 3D future is still some way off.
"There is no current technology that will allow a family to all sit wherever they like around the display and see good 3D without glasses," said Dr Dodgson, and Sharples concurred, "If the future of 3D is without glasses, that future is several years away yet. Whilst early technology demonstrations have shown the potential for glassless 3D, that technology is a long way from being able to deliver a glassless solution to more than one person at a time (watching directly in front of the screen) and there is no clear development path for this technology as yet."
For JDSU, a company whose technology relies solely on glasses delivering the 3D experience in the cinema, Bilger jokingly said he "would cry" in a glasses-less world.
Even if we do reach a glasses-less nirvana as 3D jumps out of the screens in cinemas and homes over the coming decade, you can be sure of one thing. Lack of interoperability will never disappear because brands will always develop competing formats, whatever technology they're working on. It's seemingly the nature of the three dimensional beast. µ
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