'Full 3D' vs 'Half-3D': is it all a headache?

Chris Forrester

This year’s IBC technology fest (and IFA in Berlin) are just days away. The two shows, one focused on industry professionals, the other on consumer electronics, will both feature 3D technology in all its glory.

It is already known that BSkyB will introduce a 3D service in 2010. There's no information on an introduction date but a mid-Summer soft launch ahead of the 2010-11 Premiership soccer season would seem to make sense. Such a date also allows the manufacturing sector to get suitable displays into the retail sector, and also permits the HDMI 1.4 technology to settle down and for consumer linking cables to start appearing.

However, BSkyB's system, while extremely appealing for a number of reasons, is not 'Full 3D'. Some flat-panel manufacturers, notably Panasonic, are urging caution in this regard. Eisuke Tsuyuzaki, Panasonic's CTO is one such advocate. While happily admitting: "all 3D on TV is good for 3D" he also argues that consumers risk buying into an interim technology if they adopt 'half 3D' too speedily. There are also advantages for the satellite industry if ‘Full 3D’ ends up being the 'standard' used for transmission, while 'half 3D' has few demands on extra capacity.

He might be right. There are plenty of consumers (like your editor) who have bought into 720p, 1080i and now 1080p displays and while ensuring the trickle down effect of redundant displays makes the rest of the extended family very happy, does little for his bank balance or the planet's well-being!

3D on TV, in our view, is going to happen. Hollywood's studios are not simply fully backing 3D but looking to convert back-catalogue films to 3D, such is the financial appeal of cinema revenues and the all-important Blu-ray market. And by the way, it isn't easy to video a 3D movie from a cheap camcorder at the back of the theatre, and so another piracy option is curbed. Hollywood is also enjoying something of a creative renaissance as far as 3D is concerned. Output is no longer focused (if that's the word) on 'in your face' stunts and extravagant special effects, but in enhanced reality that emphasises the natural story line.

But the oldest advice in the entertainment industry is to 'follow the money', and Hollywood knows it has a winner in 3D. Dreamworks' 'Monsters vs Aliens' did well at the box office. Internationally just 18% of the screens delivered 44% of the revenue. They were all 3D. In North America 28% of the screens (all 3D) turned in 58% of the movie's overall revenue. Much the same figures and ratios apply to almost all the past year's releases. There are also a rapidly growing number of suitable screens for theatrical release. When 'Chicken Little' was released in 2006 it was shown on 3D on just 40 North American screens. 'Beowulf' was exhibited on 400 screens in 2007. 'Bolt' from Disney was exhibited on 1600 screens in mid-summer 2008, while Avatar last winter achieved 2200 3D screens. By 2013 Screen Digest forecasts that North America will have 8400 3D screens. Europe will top 7400, and the suggestion is that French, German and Italian local film studios will by then be wholly getting the 3D message. In other words it isn't just Hollywood that will influence our 3D entertainment.

Packaged console games are also embracing 3D. There have been extensive trials of 3D coverage of sports, and this coming winter's Vancouver Winter Olympic Games will see extensive 3D coverage (Beijing's coverage, while spectacular, was limited). London's 2012 Games is expected to have an even greater element of 3D programming.

Standards, however, are a problem. While few now expect any further progress on the old-fashioned Anaglyph (cardboard) glasses with their Red and Cyan lenses, most now predict all activity to be on Passive glasses. But here there are very real industry arguments as to which way the industry should go. Polarising systems (either left-right or top-bottom) need a new TV and a switching method (and will be used by BSkyB). Existing HDTV systems then deliver line-by-line left and right eye information, but result in 'half 3D' given that half the resolution is delivered to each eye with each eye taking 50% of the available transmission signal. Some argue that a similar system, but employing a checkerboard transmission pattern is a better visual alternate. But it is still only 'half 3D'. The 'Full 3D' proponents argue that only full-frame alternate images delver true high-definition 3D, and they might be right. This frame sequential technology will need active shutter glasses that are more expensive to produce, and needing batteries to be charged.

There was also the Philips-backed multi-camera 3D system, that needed no glasses and might still have a role in public spaces, shopping centres, point-of-sale, digital signage, etc, but few see a theatrical role for such technology.

Meanwhile, the pay-TV broadcasters are looking for another revenue stream, and as a method to win - and hold onto - their male-skewing viewers, those keen on sports, films and games. There's now a huge audience who own flat-panel displays, mostly LCD but also Plasma. And the argument goes that viewers are ready for 3D.

At present, 3D content producers have to hand-build their own 3D production systems by physically connecting multiple 2D production devices. Panasonic, for example, is currently developing a professional Full HD 3D production system, which consists of a twin-lens P2 professional camera recorder and a 3D compatible High Definition Plasma display. The twin-lens P2 camera recorder enables the capturing of natural and high-quality live 3D images. One can expect the items to be on show, perhaps only in advanced prototype form, at IBC.

Technologies and expertise obtained from their use in post-production has enabled Panasonic to further develop high-quality 3D viewing performance in its Plasma technologies. As a result of this process, Panasonic say their 3D Plasma display system will help 3D content producers to quickly and easily evaluate the image quality of 3D content.

But which 'standard' might win? HDMI's 1.4 version recognises 3D and - when connected with the correct equipment - can provide the switching tags that can take the TV set into and out of 3D. Retail ready products will appear in 2010. The Blu-ray Disc Association is also working on its 3D standard although has yet to set a finishing timetable. Membership of the BDA's 3D Taskforce comprises all the usual suspects, not least Panasonic, Disney, Fox, Warner Bros, Sony Samsung, Pioneer, LG, Mitsubishi, Intel, Dell, HP, Apple - and others. Everyone accepts that BD's 3D protocols and 'standard' are needed, and soon. The protocols are need for the pressing and authoring plants as well as the consumer goods end of the value chain.

Panasonic is pushing hard for 'Full HD', not simply because of the end-result quality issue, which is important, but also because its suits their Plasma display range. With refresh rates climbing beyond 120 Hz, and ever-larger screen sizes, and the speed of pixel response that Plasma achieves, they think these elements are also key and place Panasonic into a winning position.

Time will tell. Certainly Panasonic is making a few major statements at IFA in Berlin on Sept 3 and at IBC a few days later, and most observers expect them to be making a major push on 3D (helped by an exhibition of their fabulous 103" Plasma display).

Satellite operators are somewhat passive. They give their broadcasting clients whatever the client wants. But in our view they should also be pushing (sorry, educating) those clients as hard as possible to deliver the full 'Wow' factor of 3D, and then happily supplying the extra bandwidth needed for 'Full 3D'. Much the same education process was needed, at least over Europe, to inform consumers and broadcasters of the merits of full HD. Gabriel Fehervari’s Euro 1080 channel made its debut in 2004. Here we are barely 4 years later with more than 150 HD channels on air amongst Europe’s major satellite operators. That’s progress. 3D will not generate as much activity, but one or two initial channels per platform could quickly grow to a half-dozen over the next few years – and that can only be good news for the industry.