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A Multi-Dimensional Challenge

For a technology with roots that go back to at least 1840, 3D should either be in the mainstream or in history's dustbin by now. Instead, it plugs away in various niches, including industrial design and medical imaging.

A Multi-Dimensional Challenge

For a technology with roots that go back to at least 1840, 3D should either be in the mainstream or in history’s dustbin by now. Instead, it plugs away in various niches, including industrial design and medical imaging.

For a technology with roots that go back to at least 1840, 3D should either be in the mainstream or in history’s dustbin by now. Instead, it plugs away in various niches, including industrial design and medical imaging.

Now a growing number of vendors are trying to bring 3D to a wider variety of pro AV applications and products, such as telepresence and digital signage. That expansion will take a few more years–an irony, considering how long 3D has been around.

“I would predict two to three years before 3D becomes mainstream in the digital signage market,” says Michael Holstein, vice president for advanced

solutions and emerging technologies at Walnut, Calif.-based ViewSonic.

The Standards Hurdle

One of 3D’s biggest challenges is a lack of standards–a hot topic at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. The issue spans everything from content creation through displays, and it affects both the consumer and pro markets.

“There will be standards needed for mastering files, for cable, satellite, Internet and other forms of distribution, and for in-home distribution, including Blu-ray disc,” says Chris Chinnock, president of Insight Media, a Norwalk, Conn.-based research firm.

Much of the standards debate centers around re-using 2D infrastructure to deliver 3D content, which might require more bandwidth. “That means keeping backward compatibility with existing Blu-ray players and with minimal updates to HDMI,” Chinnock says. “Panasonic is arguing for a higher-end solution that will not meet [those] requirements. This debate is on-going and undecided.”

But Chinnock believes that the industry could start to coalesce around a standard as soon as the end of this year. The driving force could be a major Hollywood studio that picks a standard and throws its weight behind it, with everyone else toeing the line, however grudgingly. That’s what happened in the next-generation DVD war, where Blu-ray prevailed mainly because it had enough big backers and momentum to crush rival HD-DVD.

One thing is clear: Nobody wants a format war, which likely would banish 3D to niche-play status for another decade or longer.

“Standards are required for 3D to really gain momentum on a larger scale,” says Anders Lø kke, international marketing and communications manager at Norway-based Projectiondesign. “Today, much of the 3D is based on proprietary technologies. The standards must be on the encoding/decoding/distribution level, not just display, as some seem to think.”

Chinnock isn’t the only one who believes that standards could be hammered out within a year.

“The main roadblock to 3D–and it is not a big problem because it is a software issue as opposed to a hardware one–is for Hollywood to decide on the codec they want to use to store their programs in 3D on the video discs,” says Robert Boudreau, technology development manager at Corning Display Technologies, based in Corning, N.Y. “Right now, a few of the players are working on the codecs, and Hollywood is testing them. TD Vision tells me that if their codec is accepted, it can work in existing modern Blu-ray players, and customers can have this capability as a firmware update to their player.”

Quality at a Price

Enabling 3D via firmware, rather than forcing users to buy new hardware, highlights another issue: the addressable market for 3D content.

Chinnock estimates that there’s an installed base of about 2 million displays–pro and consumer–that can show some form of 3D content. Most of those use plasma or Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology, but users still have to wear special glasses to get the depth perception.

That eyewear is impractical for consumer-facing applications such as digital signage, and some industrial design and medical users complain that it gets in the way of their jobs, including their ability to collaborate with others while using 3D.

“We expect many of the newer TVs will begin to incorporate electronics that can decode many types of 3D file formats and transcode them into the native 3D display mode of the TV,” Chinnock says.

LCD displays have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. At CES, some vendors demoed shutter glasses that work with 120 Hz LCD displays. “Since most LCD makers already have a form of 120 Hz drive for their display, a slight modification would convert an LCD TV to 3D using these glasses–a simple, low-risk change for display manufacturers,” says Corning’s Boudreau.

Another approach, known as “micro-pol,” laminates a sheet of polarizers to the LCD display so the screen can show left- and right-eye images. That’s expensive, but vendors are trying to reduce the cost, Chinnock says.

As with displays, a projector’s ability to support 3D depends on a variety of factors, with 3D image quality reflected in product price.

“At the low end, with anaglyph or ColorCode 3-D, one is really not dependent on the core technology for displaying 3D,” says Projectiondesign’s Lø kke. “However, moving up in quality today, one is becoming more dependent on core technology to show better 3D. As an example, LCoS and LCD projectors do not have the switching speed to display full-motion video at flicker-free bandwidths using single displays. Only DLP can do that at a full 120 Hz (60 Hz per eye).”

How Much Bandwidth?

If 3D video provides left and right images, doesn’t that require twice the bandwidth of 2D content? It’s not a trivial issue. After all, although an enterprise might be bowled over by the experience of a 3D telepresence session, if the step-up from 2D means having to buy more bandwidth, the extra cost could be a deal-breaker.

The answer depends on the technology and image quality. For example, the 2009 Super Bowl broadcast included a 3D commercial, but stations and cable operators didn’t have to temporarily increase their bandwidth. Instead, the commercial–as well as an episode of “Chuck” after the game–used Color-Code 3-D and Intel’s InTru 3D technologies, with viewers wearing special glasses.

Some viewers and bloggers found those broadcasts underwhelming. But better quality requires more bandwidth: between 1.2 and 5 times more than 2D.

“In the lower qualities, there [are] no extra bandwidth requirements, but moving up, one really needs double the bandwidth,” says Lø kke.

The good news is that vendors recognize how bandwidth affects the market for 3D. For example, Philips 3D Solutions says its Declipse platform requires only about 30 percent more bandwidth because it sends a single image, instead of separate left and right images, packaged with depth information.

Keys to Success

Despite its challenges, 3D already has a toehold in the pro AV market. For example, Philips says its 3D displays are used in shopping malls in South Africa and at casinos and theme parks in the Netherlands. “In the United States, there are 3D displays installed at, for example, the Ultra Lounge Karu [nightclub] in Miami and in the LA Bridge Theater in Los Angeles,” says Bjorn Teuwsen, marketing and communications manager.

For AV pros, success in the 3D market means understanding the technology’s nuances, including bandwidth requirements and different vendors’ approaches. “There are many, many skills that need be focused on, [including] the increased challenges of distributing content, securing the quality of it, and making sure one understands the interfacing bit,” says Lø kke. “Today, many are unaware of the pitfalls in proprietary technologies, image generation, decoding, and display technologies. Better quality means higher bandwidth, meaning increased complexity.”

Those skills take time to acquire. The good news is there will be plenty of time because although the 3D market is growing, it will not be booming anytime soon.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ample short-term opportunities. For example, an integrator could make itself stand out from the pack by wowing a potential client with a 3D system that rival AV and IT firms can’t match. And niches such as medical imaging and industrial design can be deep and lucrative.

“There is clearly growing opportunity here,” says Insight’s Chinnock. “We foresee over 50,000 units [per] year by 2013.”

It’s a mistake to overlook the impact of the consumer market. For example, if 3D catches on with consumers and the companies that cater to them, those high equipment volumes will help fund the R&D that pro products can use, too. Plus, as happened with HD, consumers who fall in love with 3D at home could wind up specifying it at work. With major movie studios, such as DreamWorks, and sports leagues, such as the NBA and NFL, increasing their 3D content, people could come to expect or value 3D in the workplace.

“The thing to remember about 3D is that its primary value will not be in its ability to reproduce reality, but rather to enhance the emotional experience of the viewer,” says Peter Bocko, chief technology officer for Corning’s East Asia operations. “For this reason, I personally like the prospects for public displays for advertising.”

Tim Kridel is a freelance writer and analyst who covers AV, telecom, and information technology. He’s based in Columbia, Mo.

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