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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Is 3D the next HD?

I think in some ways, Microsoft's Xbox 360 heralded the modern HD era of entertainment, being the first consumer device which both insisted upon itself on being part of the high def generation, but also one that was massively adopted by consumers.

Course, much of HD adoption wasn't the rosy path either Microsoft, Sony, or the other players, wanted it to be - which to bring it back to gaming aided a certain company rhyming with Mintendo by being cheap and easy to use on existing standard def sets. However, by May 2009, nearly half of homeowners have a high def set, a 12% increase from the previous year. The dust has settled on the format war, players are getting quickly cheaper and there are more and more viewing options are becoming available.

So, just as the smoke begins to clear - the industry is trying to carve the next, um, next-generation. HD is old. 3D is new:

We saw 3-D footage shot at the Beijing Olympics, including that larger-than-life opening ceremony in the Bird's Nest stadium and a soccer game that was more vivid and lifelike than anything I've ever seen on a screen. It felt as if we were standing at the edge of the pitch. I'm not a big sports fan, but the first thing I thought was that the "killer app" for this technology will be sports. Monday Night Football will never be the same again. ESPN, which embraced HD and boomed because of it, is going to have a field day.
-- TV’s Next Dimension [Newsweek]

In part, we have James Cameron to blame. He has been spearheading a movement in cinema for a while now, trying to prove that 3D has evolved past the gimmick stage and deserves to become the forefront of movie making technology. It doesn't hurt, of course, that the movie industry has been getting kicked in the shins with piracy and low ticket sales - both things that moviemakers hope 3D can help address. See, you can't simply sneak a camcorder into a theater, burn it and sell it if that theater is playing a 3D version. Add in the additional draw (and potentially the jacked up price) and you have a very happy theater owner.

The game industry has been making similar noises, although probably with a slightly different set of motives. With Moore's Law no longer being the prime mover for selling new games, or to put it another way - you can't be sure of a bestseller by trying to outperform yesterday's graphics anymore - game producers would love to have a technical solution to spike some sales. Long term gamers will realize, of course, that they have been here before, and honestly we'll need to see some better demonstrations to decide if goofy looking glasses are worth playing the game.

All of this, of course, translates into apparently an entirely new set of hardware:

We'll have to wait and see on that one. To get into the 3-D game, you'll need a new TV, obviously, as well as a new Blu-ray player that can play 3-D discs, and a new HDMI cable that can handle the extra data associated with 3-D content. The first stuff you'll see will be on discs, but Panasonic expects 3-D content will be delivered on cable and satellite, and even, eventually, on broadcast TV. It took eight or nine years for HD sets to reach widespread adoption, and 3-D will likely follow a similar curve.
-- TV’s Next Dimension [Newsweek]

Ahem. Firstly - a new HDMI cable? Wasn't HDMI supposed to be something of the end all, be all, for media cables?

But that's being nitpicky. I think the holes in the 3D theory are a bit more expansive than just the cables.

First - I find it doubtful that piracy will be so quickly subdued. It's been a circular technological war since the onset, and will continue to do so. Second, it seems unlikely that 3D is going to be a massive hit outside certain genres. I could be wrong, of course - perhaps seeing a lame romantic comedy with an additional dimension will make it slightly less lame - but I certainly don't see dishing any extra dollars to see it that.

Finally, HD was a far harder sell than the industry assumed it would be - partially due to high prices and partially due to a needless format war. There's nothing to say that a 3D generation wouldn't face similar, or worse, issues - especially considering we don't have any ready to market sets to examine at this point. Especially since I would challenge that "nearly half" equates to "widespread adoption", and adding in consumer fatigue from the fact that half them would have sets less than ten years old (my last TV I got from my first corporate job out after college, not that I'll admit here how long that was) - I think anything less than a decade is pretty optimistic.

Also, how hard of a sell will it be to convince consumers they need new hardware to make use of a feature which has been around since the 50's?

In general, I think the industry may be getting a little ahead of itself here.


sterno said...

My sense is that the industry wants 3D to happen, but I'm not convinced there is much consumer demand for it. Actually, to be more specific, I'm sure if you could sell a 3-D upgrade to somebody's existing home theater for a few hundred bucks, they'd do it. I don't think they'll go out of their way to spend thousands on new equipment though.

Today, you can do 3D provided that you're okay with a refresh of only 30Hz. You have a standard 60Hz signal and then you split it into left/right. The frame rate for movies under 30Hz, so this is fine for movies.

Where it gets expensive is that none of the media, TV's, etc, are capable of dealing with a true 120hz+ signal. The 120hz TV's are just taking 60hz images and then doing a bit of trickery to smooth them out with the extra 60Hz. But ultimately how many people are going to spend thousands of dollars extra so that they can watch movies in 3D?

I see this as being somewhat akin to DVD audio. Sure it's whizbang cool, but the reality is that nobody needs it. Sure 3D will look cooler, but not enough to justify a major investment.

On the bright side, it seems to me that 3D will just come down the pipe and be what you get if you go out and buy a TV in a few years time. You just need to be able to send data twice as fast, which isn't a technically difficult challenge.

Expect Sony to push this in a big big way. Why? Because they own Blu-ray. Broadcast television would take a long time to upgrade to 3D because it would involve new camera equipment, new cable boxes, new satellite bandwidth, etc. Sony, on the other hand just needs to release a 3D capable TV, modify the Blu-Ray format a bit, and push out a PS4 and new Blu-Ray players.

Josh said...

Agreed. There's a chicken and egg problem - users will have to buy in enough quantities before it can be cheap enough to justify the cost. Problem with television is that there is no killer app. There's nothing which will convince a large group of people to instantly upgrade at a high cost. The 360 couldn't do it for HD. PS3 hasn't really done it for Blu-Ray (though arguably both have done a lot for the cause).

Follow up thought - we're just now getting to the point where compression and broadband meet to make HD relatively accessible over the Internet. 3D movies would, what - double that?

I wonder what bad compression artifacts look like in three dimensions too...

sterno said...

I should think that 3D video wouldn't take that much more bandwidth if you had a reasonably intelligent compression algorithm. The difference between the left/right channels of 3d video are relatively small.

Interesting question though...