Dolby 3D just might save stereoscopic 3D from extinction

Together with Philips and The Foundry, Dolby is promoting a new approach to 3D video content creation and distribution.

By Kathleen Maher

At the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention recently, there were still a few companies and individuals who are bullish about 3D, but there were even more asking each other, “What was that about?” In the US, audiences for 3D are leveling out, and the movies are settling into predictable genres; 3D anima­tion thrives because stereography comes for free and kids like it. There is still a place for 3D in live action film for big action movies and stories full of wonder like Life of Pi or Avatar. In some cases, effects and stereography help sell pre­mium tickets. Defenders point out that 3D is still growing rapidly outside the US. Theaters are going up and tickets are being bought. But still, most of the people who were enthusiastic about 3D a few years ago are now looking down at the ground and shuffling their feet. As it is shaking out, people won’t go to a movie just because it’s 3D, and they won’t pay extra for 3D unless there’s a good reason to do so. So, there is dimin­ishing interest in spending more money on 3D live-action productions.

There is hope. Last year at NAB, Dolby introduced a new 3D autostereoscopic display designed and devel­oped in conjunction with Philips. The display has been mak­ing victory laps around the world and winning awards wherever it goes. This year, Dolby came back to NAB with a new 3D platform strategy to enable 3D content creation and distribution. Phil­ips and Dolby have been using the beau­tiful 4K display to demonstrate their au­tostereoscopic technology, which can be used for any display—from phones and tablets to TVs—without disrupting the current workflows for 3D content cre­ation and distribution.

At NAB Dolby was excited to share their plans for the next generation of 3D. (Source: JPR)
At NAB Dolby was excited to share their plans for the next generation of 3D. (Source: JPR)

Seeking the sweet spot

First, let’s start with the end. Autostereography has not been a practical solution for several reasons. The tech­nology, which promises 3D displays without glasses, has generally required special cameras for capture, and it asked viewers to find a sweet spot where 3D worked best and to stay there so they could get right- and left-eye views. Philips has developed an autostereo­scopic display technique that relies on a lenticular barrier, which displays several pairs of views (6, 8, or even 14), so that anyone in the room can get a left- and right-eye view for the 3D effect. Philips was a pioneer in this field, and they had the best examples of the technology.

They had branded their display technol­ogy WoWvx. In 2009, Philips backed away from marketing their approach, citing continued work and difficulties building infrastructure for autostereo­scopic displays. Obviously, they didn’t totally give up.

Philips has teamed with Dolby, and the two companies have put in R&D to address the problem from end to end. They have improved Philips’ autoste­reoscopic technology to provide a bet­ter experience, and in the case of the 4K TV, we were told the TV provides up to 28 views, but the number of views can vary according to the size of the display. Watching the 4K TV at NAB, we found there was no obvious sweet spot, and the company made a point of having great content to display. Display expert Bob Raikes of Meko agrees that the system looks good. He says, “one of the ways that they reduce and almost eliminate the ‘sweet spots’ is by reducing the depth effect. There’s a straight relationship — more depth
means more spots. Personally, I’d be happy to make that trade.”

Dolby, of course, already has tech­nology for 3D theatrical display using glasses, and after years of building infra­structure, they’re not going to abandon that approach either. Instead, Dolby has developed the Dolby 3D Format Speci­fication, which is designed to accom­modate the different types of display and to enable better 3D in the home. The Dolby 3D format will enable dis­plays to create an image best suited to the display. So, if you have a Dolby 3D autostereoscopic display, you’ll get the correct right and left view, and if you have a system requiring glasses, it will display correctly as well.

The Foundry pitches in

The Foundry is also part of the team. The Foundry’s compositing tool, Nuke, and 3D stereo-editing product, Ocula, support the Dolby 3D format, which adds another important piece of the puzzle with content creation tools. Simon Robinson, chief scientist at The Foundry, said they’ll support the Dolby 3D output format, which is still under development. After seeing the footage from Life of Pi and Avatar, he said he was “shocked how good it was.” He ex­plained that the content shown at NAB was created using Ocula. The technol­ogy uses a depth map plus color map to give devices enough information about the image to create a 3D representation that is best suited to the display. In that way, the Dolby 3D platform can create 3D effects that are better suited to the environment.

According to reports back from IBC 2012, James Cameron praised the Dolby 56-inch 4K 3D TV on display and said, “I now feel motivated again to continue with 3D.” His company, formed with Vince Pace CPG, has announced plans to support the Dolby 3D format, and the company helped create 3D content for the display at NAB.

Dolby and Philips plan to offer the Dolby 3D format as a standard for licensing. They are working with the Society of Motion Picture and Televi­sion Engineers to that end. Dolby is al­ready working with early adopters and says it will publish the spec by the end of 2013. Dolby 3D-supported devices are expected to arrive on the market in 2014 and 2015.

Philips’ autostereoscopic technology uses a depth map and color map to create left and right eye views. (Source: Philips Electronics)
Philips’ autostereoscopic technology uses a depth map and color map to create left and right eye views. (Source: Philips Electronics)

So far, 3D is not succeeding in the home market. Even though there are more than 20 million 3D-capable TVs in U.S. homes, viewers are not watch­ing 3D. It is not succeeding for a vari­ety of reasons including problems with formatting 3D for the home versus the theater, but most of all because wear­ing glasses makes less sense in the home. The Dolby 3D TVs with autostereo­scopic screens means they can support 3D and 2D content so viewers can have a more natural viewing experience in­cluding the use of a second screen, as people are increasingly doing in the liv­ing room as they augment the content on the television set with content from PCs, tablets, and phones. The Dolby-Philips technology has the potential to solve these problems by being able to offer an adjusted 3D view that is best suited to the display.

Another piece of the puzzle is 4K, al­though it is possibly an unknown in terms of how fast the technology will roll out to consumers. This year at CES 2013, the first 4K TVs for the home were shown. The industry has adopted the brand Ultra HD TV or UHDTV, which will cover 4K and even 8K TVs. For Sony this year’s CES 2013 was the kickoff for 4K. Sony’s Alec Sha­piro, President of Sony Professional So­lutions of America, expressed enthusi­asm for the next generation of HD TVs. Also, he demonstrated 4K OLED TVs as reference monitors.

Yet, there was quite a bit of discus­sion about the viability of Ultra HD at NAB as critics pointed out that it took a very long time for HD to get into the home, and some claim consum­ers won’t be able to see the difference. Shapiro says he believes the transition to Ultra HD will happen much faster than the transition to HD because the infrastructure has been laid for digital TV. Certainly, we believe people will be able to see the difference in higher reso­lution TVs, and technology like Dolby 3D could also be a selling point. In fact, it’s a symbiotic relationship because the new brighter TVs with lots more pixels will help the lenticular display look its best.

Our take

We go back and forth. The 4K dis­play at NAB 2013 was clearly superior to anything we’ve seen so far, although it’s not all that immersive. But 3D could be a great gimmick for commercials as well as movies and sports. The content showed at NAB was superior—it was as great as the content created for early HD displays. It’s unlikely the run-of-the-mill stuff that comes into the house will be up to the same high standards. Here’s the deal: these displays are better, but 3D TV doesn’t seem destined to ever be main­stream. It will always make more sense for children’s programming and for spe­cial occasions. Nevertheless, home viewers are going to like the fact they don’t have to dig out the glasses to watch a program in 3D.