All 3D all the time at Dimension 3

The annual conference has become a pilgrimage site for true believers in the future of stereoscopic 3D. Kathleen Maher reports from Paris.

By Kathleen Maher

Sometimes it seems digital 3D is not so much a technology but some­thing more like a religion. As vari­ous types of immersive 3D are be­coming more commercially attractive, thanks to the success of 3D movies, much more con­tent is being made, schisms are ap­pearing, and dif­ferent philosophies about 3D content are emerging. The Dimension 3 conference in Paris, founded six years ago, is a gathering of fanatics—people who truly believe in 3D, love it with all their hearts, and abandon all reason. The conference en­courages the discussion of different ap­proaches to creating 3D effects, and past shows have featured experimental content creation and production.

This year, all that fragmentation was evident. On the exhibition show floor there were holographics displays, autostereoscopic displays, many, many different camera rigs, and even 3D printing technology from Objet. But, really, what is 3D? The technology is fragmenting as new methods are devised to capture and share 3D content.

It is a time of crisis for entertainment 3D. On one hand, its continued existence is secure, thanks to the huge revenues flowing from the big hits, Avatar, The Avengers, and Toy Story 3, the three lead box office revenues for 3D. Other movies bringing in good 3D revenues include reissues. The Lion King and Titanic have come out of the past to score again with 3D. In addition, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a critical dar­ling; it won an Academy Award and has brought new audiences in to see 3D. The increase in interest in 3D worldwide has influenced the creation of many more movies outside the Hollywood studio system. China, France, Spain, and Germany are releasing new 3D movies. China’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, by sword-and-sorcery veteran, Tsui Hark, is a worldwide leader in box office revenues with box office receipts reaching $80 million.

Clearly, the 3D movie market is moving. In the U.S. revenues from 3D movies are going down. People are not necessarily choosing to see big movies in 3D when it’s offered. They’re more discerning, and all in all, the movies have to be better. There hasn’t been another Avatar in a while. The closest thing has been The Avengers, which has been the biggest money-maker for 3D in a while. It’s all a matter of quality. Filmmakers know it, and the audience knows it. So far, 3D movies still bring in considerably more money than 2D movies.

3D in the home

The crisis for 3D entertainment content, especially movies, is coming on the heels of 3D in the home. Surprisingly, the easy assumption has been that 3D would move smoothly into the home, where a big date night or family night might include a 3D blockbuster. Blu-ray is an accepted medium, the number of 3D-ready TVs in the home is reaching attractive numbers, and there are now at least 100 movies available in 3D Blu-ray. What could possibly go wrong?

What is going wrong at the moment is that content optimized for 3D in a big movie theater is more often than not too subdued for the small screen in the living room. What? That’s right: the majority of content creators have been slow to recognize, or they can’t afford to recognize, that content needs to be created differently for 3D in the home than it is for 3D on the big screen. And, what’s worse is that the same is true for content that will be displayed on a tablet screen or an autostereoscopic mobile phone or game device like the Nintendo 3ds.

Studios have already been looking at the math to balance the added cost of creating 3D content against the delta of increased revenues for 3D theatrical screenings. So far the numbers are holding up, but that might not be true for 3D in the home when producers have to think about re-working content for dif­ferent screens and environments.

Then there’s the patchy transition to digital download and video on demand. For the past five years or so, sales and rentals of DVDs and Blu-rays have been decreasing. However, the Digital Entertainment Group announced in April 2012 a sales increase of 23% year over year. The group credits the increase to sales of Blu-ray players over the holidays. Some industry watchers also credit an interest in 3D for increased sales in DVD, but it’s still too early to make any predictions, especially since consumers’ early experiences with 3D in the home have been less than satisfying.

Audiences like the convenience of downloading and streaming content, but they’re still buying content they want to keep.

Content providers like streaming and digital download models because they represent huge savings in costs. Movies and TV shows for download don’t have to be packaged and distributed. No one has to negotiate for shelf space, and advertising prices can be considerably less. And, now that the industry is coming to understand the differences between content formatted for large screens and that formatted for handhelds, downloads offer the ability to tailor the payload to the target format.

These are early days for all that, though. The standards bodies are just rousing themselves to face up to the challenge of 3D video on demand.

This screen capture of Screen Digest data presented at D3 shows that the build-out of 3D screens has plateau’d in North America, but it is still growing in the rest of the world. The fastest growing, and largest, market for 3D is China. (Source: Screen Digest)

3D standards for VOD

At Dimension 3, French company Ateme addressed standards from its position as one of the leading compression companies delivering video on demand. Presenter Jérôme Vieron said that Ateme was among the first companies to offer 3D video on demand content, and they consider their work on Avatar as a major claim to fame for the company.

Vieron provided general details about the transition of the VOD market. He said that HD is growing rapidly and has surpassed SD. By 2015, Ateme expects to see 77% of all VOD content be HD. Along with the transition to HD, Vieron says the market is readying itself for 3D content. In 2011, 24 million 3D TVs sold worldwide, which represents 11% of all TV sales. In 2016, the penetration of 3D TVs in the U.S. will reach 33% to 55%, 40% to 65% in France, and 37% to 67% in Japan.

Unfortunately, the market is not going to grow without content. In a glass half-empty/half-full observation, Vieron notes that there are only about 100 titles available in Blu-ray 3D. That number is growing, but future titles are going to have to be formatted for TV.

Vieron identified the leading contenders for 3D VOD compression, including:

HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding)—HEVC comes out of the work being done by the ISO/MPEG and ITU-T/VCEG. It will be the successor to H.264/MPEG AVC. New set-top boxes for HEVC are expected in 2014. It will also support Ultra HD (4K) resolutions for TV.

H.264/MVC (multi-view coding)—This standard is being evaluated by the DVB-3D working group.

D3 director and founder, Stéphan Faudeux, chats with Ateme’s Jérôme Vieron. (Source: Jon Peddie Research)

Multi-view coding is the standard that is being developed to work with 2D + Depth content. Several groups are interested in this format, which was originally developed by Philips for its autostereoscopic TVs in the WOWvx line. As the name implies, 2D + Depth combines 2D images with disparity maps to allow multiple views for autostereoscopic displays and, as it’s turning out, to fine-tune content for different platforms. 2D + Depth techniques are being looked at as a vehicle for increasing and decreasing the parallax to tweak content for TVs vs. movies or tablets vs. TVs.

Ateme says they are the first to offer compression and transcoding technolo­gies for 3D VOD.The company is banking on the video on demand market as their golden opportunity, and VOD also enables content providers to offer variations on the content, depending on the target platform.

However, that golden opportunity is a challenge as well as audiences fail to materialize for the 3D content that already exists. For example, DirecTV has cut back on its programming due to a lack of interest. It was assumed that sports would be a big new market for 3D TV content, and that may yet happen; however, live-action 3D is particularly hard to manage and control, so the effect can include a lot of disconcertingly fast movement, confusing moves from foreground to background. Live events like theater and concerts make more sense because the area of action is a constrained space and the parallax plane can be calculated before filming.