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Arduous trek to living room for glasses-free 3D may be getting smoother

Tue, 09/17/2013 - 8:13pm
Craig Kuhl, Contributing Editor

Even as many write off 3D as a folly, some in the industry keep plugging away at making it work   

For years, 3D’s arduous trek from the friendly confines of theaters to the traditional environs of mainstream living rooms has been stalled by unfilled promises of advancing technologies, by exorbitant costs, and by lack of content.

But mostly it’s been about the clunky glasses required to experience 3D. Until technology enables the 3D experience sans glasses, 3D’s path to the living room will remain arduous, many industry experts contend.

3D without glasses has been around for years. The spectacles-free version is called autostereoscopic 3D, and while it does provide a legitimate 3D experience, it has done so within narrow conditions that have thus far prohibited commercialization.

But if the technology can be made to succeed, the demise of 3D glasses would smooth the path to putting 3D technology in more living rooms. At least in theory.

“All TV manufacturers have a 3D feature on flat screen TVs, but most agree that consuming 3D in the home is very different than in theaters, and no question glasses get in the way,” said Jim Chabin, president of the International 3D Society.

There’s a bit of déjà vu all over again with 3D, Chabin admitted. But this time there’s a higher level of confidence that autostereoscopic technology, the engine driving glasses free 3D (GF3D), will finally give it some traction.

“Early on, the technology wasn’t there, and the quality was never at the level consumers were comfortable with, or expected. But stereoscopic 3D will come into its own when there are no glasses,” he noted.

It won’t be easy. Added Chabin: “Broadcasters spent $30 million to change out each system to digital and HD. They are reluctant to change out again to 4K and 3D, and the TV side of GF3D doesn’t have a monetized equation like the theaters. We need to understand the business model. But it’s coming, and fast.”

For some, fast is a relative term for GF3D’s trek into the living room. And consumer acceptance thus far is spotty at best.

“Consumers aren’t paying much attention to 3D TV. Many get 3D TVs but without the glasses, and they’re expensive.

There’s also confusion about 3D content and is there enough to make stereoscopic TV worthwhile. The buzz is 4K, so we hesitate to say consumers will go after GF3D separately, only when it comes together with 4K,” said Michelle Abraham, senior analyst for Multimedia Research Group.

And that is expected to take a while. In the meantime, autostereoscopic 3D will be relegated to digital signage and other ancillary markets, industry observers say.

Yet there’s a growing community of GF3D believers that are convinced it’s just a matter of time before 3D becomes a household staple. And despite the recent announcements by ESPN and BBC to discontinue their 3D channels, GF3D is the future of 3D, with future being the operative word.

“We’re seeing lots of development in the TV manufacturing space with glasses-free 3D at Samsung and others, and dramatic improvements in the technology. For example, the footpads required to view 3D are gone. We know that people like 3D content in theaters, but in the home, glasses are an issue and there are several steps to take just getting to 3D. Those are impediments to 3D growth in the home,” explained Tom Cosgrove, president and CEO of 3Net, a joint venture of Sony, Discovery Channel and IMAX that delivers 24/7 3D content to cable, satellite and IPTV subscribers in the U.S.

Yet despite those obstacles, consumers are showing some signs of interest in GF3D TV.

According to a recent Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) study, 68 percent of 3D-capable owners say their 3D visuals are excellent. Yet 71 percent reported eye strain and headaches when wearing 3D glasses. Another onethird complained about the high cost of 3D TVs.

“The interest level in glasses-free 3D is pretty high, with 75 percent saying they’re interested or very interested,” said Brian Markwalter, SVP of research and standards for CEA. “But the glasses are an impediment, so there’s not a strong pulse for producing glasses-free 3D TVs. We’ll track it when products actually go into the consumer channels. We haven’t seen GF3D for TV yet and trading glasses for keeping your head still remains the classic problem that must be solved.”

One company that’s on the GF3D case is Dolby, which most experts agree is out front in the GF3D technology space. It has developed a technology that enables the maximum possible depth in viewing, and allows viewers to move around while watching in 3D, a quantum leap forward for 3D.

“The first generation of GF3D wasn’t well thought out and it set back the industry a few years. It wasn’t a great experience.

No one wants to wear 3D glasses. Now, there’s an acceptable solution. The key is how do we help camera manufacturers, improve encoders and optics? When the first generation of glasses-free 3D shows up with notable brands, that’s when the chain reaction starts. But if the technology doesn’t enable customers to watch TV as usual, it won’t work,” said Zaved Shamsuddin, senior product marketing manager for Dolby 3D.

And it will take a lot of hard work to get GF3D to the living room, cautioned Paul Gray, director of TV electronics Europe TV research for DisplaySearch.

“Set makers are flying off in all directions, and clearly, broadcasters are puzzling over the GF3D problems. Many, such as the BBC and NHK, are saying stereoscopic TV isn’t the way to go and that a better perception of reality is through massive amounts of resolution for clarity and depth. We’re not saying GF3D will go away, just that no one is particularly active with GF3D except for digital signage and points of sale. So for TV, GF3D is a ways off,” Gray added.

And what will shorten the time to market for GF3D? Answered Gray: “Gaming. If the gaming industry embraces it, that will determine whether GF3D takes off. But it hasn’t yet.”

In the meantime, companies such as Stream TV Networks are pushing ahead with GF3D technology and insist its time is near.

Mathu Rajan, CEO of Stream TV Networks, said, “We’ve started production of GF3D and added the technology that increases resolution. We’ve also added SeeCube, which converts 2D and 3D stereoscopic into a glasses-free format in real time. Our technology is modular with hardware, software and middleware that goes directly into the TV set manufacturing process, and with no glasses. Now, we’ll see a major effort to educate the consumer on GF3D TV and its unlimited views and early stages of holograms. GF3D is imminent and we’re laser-focused on production.”

Staying focused on the development of glasses-free 3D for TV is paramount, and will demand a dizzying array of technologies, consumer awareness and business models before realizing its full potential.

Concluded Gray: “The issue is still about creating that Aha! moment for glasses- free 3D. And losing the glasses.” ■

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