3-D standards: a Tower of Babel

Nov. 1, 2009
There’s great potential here for massive consumer bafflement that will make buying a 3-D television more of a horror story than the films you can to see.

Don’t toss out those cheesy, goony-looking cardboard 3-D glasses quite yet. The year 2010 looks like it will be a big year for innovative three-dimensional imaging systems in cinema and television, according to a recent article by Tetsuo Nozawa in Nikkei Electronics Asia. But, in my view, 3-D imaging for all just ain’t that easy.

The author predicts that next year will see the incorporation of 3-D specifications in televisions, personal video recorders, broadcast services, cell phones, personal computers, and DVD game systems, to use a few examples. The big problem is whose specs to use? And will consumers buy 3-D-ready electronics gear?

The upcoming standards battle promises to make the VHS vs. Betamax kerfuffle of distant memory look like a genteel tempest in a teapot. So who is getting ready to toss a few mortar shells of competing standards into the consumer electronics arena?

While not exactly an organization known for its ability to leap TV studios in a single bound, the SMPTE (the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers) is developing the Home Master Format specification, a key building block for consumer 3-D systems. But don’t expect an agreed set of standards before the end of next year. The SMPTE is also active in promoting commercial 3-D standards. Then there’s the US Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) still toiling away at the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI 1.4).

Meanwhile in Japan, the Association of Radio Industries and Businesses (ARIB) has taken off the gloves for the moment and is trying to mediate the upcoming media clash between Sony and Matsushita (Panasonic).

But all these potential standards will rely on some type of glasses that will give the illusion of a 3-D image via a pair of slightly redisplayed 2-D images on a 2-D screen. There have been considerable improvements in 3-D glasses—LCD shutters, for example. These glasses give a much more realistic image than the cardboard jobs that were used to view early 3-D images. Such stereoscopy has been around since 1840. Stereoscopic imagery was popular in the Victorian era as parlor entertainment.

More recently, a Beverly Hills company, RealD, has had some significant successes with a stereoscopic projection system for movies that works with digital projectors equipped with an LCD adapter that produces polarized left and right eye images 144 times a second. The images can be viewed with glasses that look like conventional polarized sunglasses.

The company has agreed to install 1500 screens in movie theaters belonging to the AMC chain. A couple of Hollywood movies using RealD have grossed in the $300 million range and more are in the works. RealD claims to have agreements that would cover 90% of the North American movie theater market.

Then there’s the question of the home market for 3-D content. I doubt that I would find Jay Leno any more amusing in 3-D. In fact, since 3-D imaging needs pairs of right and left images, 3-D television sets would have half the resolution of today’s sets. There are some significant technical problems in avoiding image interference and taming LCD driver power consumption with conventional LCD monitors. Again, standards do not yet exist in the home entertainment arena.

However there have been several attempts to produce a true 3-D image with holograms, such as the work of Dr. Emmett Leith in the mid-1960s at the University of Michigan. The holograms had a distinct three-dimensional form and could be examined from all sides. As of today there does not appear to be any commercial 3-D systems utilizing this holographic technology. A Russian group of researchers has also been active in this field since the mid-1970s and has some extravagant claims for its research but no commercial equipment has yet been built.

One thing is for sure: there’s great potential here for massive consumer bafflement that will make buying a 3-D television more of a horror story than the films you can see. There’s no guarantee that 3-D standards will make entertainment life run more smoothly. As they used to say at the opera house: “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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