Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Cinematography: 3D: The 2014 Playbook

Barry Sandrew

Barry Sandrew, Ph.D.
Founder, CCO and CTO, Legend3D

If you went to the CES extravaganza in Las Vegas this year, you would have seen the world of 3D everywhere. My excursion onto the exhibit floor began as it does every year, through the imposing main entrance of the North Hall where the prime exhibitor real estate is located. Walking onto the exhibit floor past the huge LG logos framing the North Hall entrance, I was immediately stopped by a solid mass of CES attendees wearing passive 3D glasses that were being handed out by LG representatives. The crowd was at least 30 attendees deep, backing up to and essentially blocking the entrance. 
The attraction was the 10 x 30 foot passive 3D wall, what LG claims is the largest in the world. Objects projecting out from the huge display seemed to envelop the entire exhibit floor with fireworks exploding and butterflies, balloons and snowflakes floating mere inches from our noses. Like last year, it was a totally immersive, mesmerizing experience punctuated periodically by spontaneous applause from the attendees as the vibrant demo dished out greater and more dynamic three dimensional “wow” moments.
3D glasses were everywhere at CES
3D glasses were everywhere at CES
Making my way past the 3D wall and into the LG booth, I was impressed by both the curved and flat OLED (organic light-emitting diode) 3D TVs with their blacker than black contrast ratios and exceptionally vibrant color. The 4K passive 3D TVs were particularly evident, displaying 3D video with quality unimaginable in years past.
Samsung’s booth also did not disappoint. OLED curved 3D TVs were evident everywhere on the floor, if one had the time and interest to explore beyond the 4K hype.
As anticipated, 4K and 3D have become the killer terms this year. Each technology benefits significantly from the other. Full resolution 3D with passive glasses is now a reality when displayed on a 4K/3D TV. While higher resolution alone might not be a sufficient value-add to motivate consumers to purchase new TVs, UHD combined with 3D technology produces an exceptional viewing experience that’s far greater than the sum of its parts.
While 3D was not the headliner at CES 2014, 3D TVs were certainly well represented on the exhibit floor. Although manufacturers were clearly playing down their 3D feature, the units on display have matured considerably. It was obvious that major TV manufacturers, LG and Samsung among others, remain fully committed to the advancement of 3D TV.

A new acronym: HDR

While TV manufacturers in general seemed fixated on 4K and even 8K resolution, there are many technologists on the production side of the industry who acknowledge the fact that the number of pixels on a TV screen is less important than the amount and type of data that each of those pixels represent. Enter High Dynamic Range (HDR)! 
Dolby demo room
Sitting in the Dolby demo room, I was able to compare a 2K and 4K high dynamic range TV to a standard 4K TV. The difference in image quality, even at 2K was unmistakable. In my opinion, higher spatial and temporal resolution coupled with greater dynamic range, wider color gamut and higher peak luminance will likely be an end-game for home entertainment in the foreseeable future.
According to the NPD Consumer Tracking Service, approximately 12 million 3D TVs have been sold since 2010. While this is a far cry from the tens of millions projected four years ago, the current installed base is nonetheless substantial.  Indeed, the installed base will continue to grow because most of the flat screen TVs consumers bought over Christmas are ready for 3D even if that feature was not a criteria for their purchase. Today, if you can buy a smart TV that has 3D at no appreciable increase in purchase price, then why not take advantage of it?
Certainly, the lack of 3D content is no longer an excuse to delay a 3D TV purchase. In 2013, there were more than 50 3D feature films released on Blu-ray. In the U.S. alone, 42 new 3D feature films are slated for theatrical and Blu-ray release in 2014. Today, 3D capable disc players represented one third of the Blu-ray player market.  I see this as just one more harbinger of good things to come for the 3D TV market in 2014.
Don’t look to autostereo (glasses free) TV as the next great advance in 3D TV, however. As I anticipated in my blog, lenticular and parallax barrier 3D TV fizzled at CES 2014. I believe the reason for its failure is that the core technology is inherently flawed. To my eye, even 4K and 8K ultra high definition does not currently appear to produce an acceptable glasses free 3D experience. Sure, looking at autostereo TV can generate a considerable amount of wow factor if you’ve never seen glasses free 3D before, but autostereo will be a difficult sell into the home market. Having to sit within a narrow sweet-spot in order to appreciate 3D coupled with a lack of stereo accuracy – the way the original filmmaker intended their film to be seen – is sure to have negative effects on the home viewing experience.

3D feature film production

Let’s step out of the home environment for a minute and look at feature films. Nine out of the top 10 highest grossing films in 2013 were released in 3D, generating more than $6 billion.  I see this as clear evidence that the movie-going audience continues to see 3D as a uniquely attractive and value-added theatrical experience. This is true despite the fact that the majority of today’s digital theaters are ill equipped to handle the necessary added brightness for 3D. In this regard, 3D glasses remain a liability for exhibitors until they can find a way to dramatically improve image brightness on the screen.
Enter the laser projector, which produces more than sufficient foot-lamberts to make the theatrical 3D viewing experience brighter and better than ever. IMAX has orders for more than 20 theatrical laser projector installations this year and in Latin America and China, conventional theaters are being primed for the greatest number of laser projector installations in 2014.
Along with the brighter image that laser projection delivers to 3D content, it also touts lower operating costs, lower power consumption, and an increased lifespan. What a convincing economical argument for upgrading from traditional xenon arc lamps, which have been the staple of theatrical exhibition for decades.
On the feature film production side, we’re seeing early advances in single lens cameras that can accurately create depth maps, either algorithmically via several strategies – including inferred light field approximations – or through direct light field measurements. These advances could ultimately remove much of the labor-intensive image segmentation or rotoscoping that currently drives up the cost of 3D conversion. By manipulating depth masks generated from these cameras, conversion stereographers will be able to achieve the creative vision of the filmmaker in less time and at a lower cost, making converted 3D films even more affordable than they are today.
I predict that 2014 will be a pivotal year for 3D in both the home and theater. We won’t see consumers purchasing 3D TVs in droves, but there is currently a respectable installed base of 3D TVs in the home. Those consumers purchasing new flat screen TVs will likely have the 3D feature bundled into their new sets. Reduced brightness from 3D glasses will be resolved for the home market with the advent of OLED and High Dynamic Range 3D TVs. Likewise, the introduction of laser projectors for theatrical exhibition will give moviegoers a far superior 3D experience. I have little doubt that within the next two years the amazing improvements in quality, resulting from advances in TV and projection technology, will signal a resurgence of interest in 3D entertainment from consumers, TV manufacturers, exhibitors and distribution channels.