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Monday, October 03, 2005

Siggraph and USC bring you the latest on 3-D

(If you're seeing this entry for the second time, my apologies - Blogger seems to be eating my posts lately. But as a bonus link, here's a story from InformationWeek that came out today.)

I was down in LA last Thursday for a bunch of interviews and a really great event last night on "Digital Cinema and 3D: Business, Production, and Distribution Trends." It was held at the Pacific Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard (aka the Digital Cinema Laboratory), and organized by the Entertainment Technology Center at USC and the LA Chapter of ACM Siggraph.

The event was a mix of 3D clips and panel discussion. Panelists included executives from Real D, which is working with Disney on November's "Chicken Little" release in 85 theaters; In-Three, which hopes to convert existing 2D films into 3D; Texas Instruments; QuVis, which makes digital cinema servers; Cobalt Enterprises, which designs 3D camera systems and produces projects (they're currently working on an IMAX 3D picture about the Super Bowl); and Christie, which made the2K digital projector that was used at the Pacific. Also on the panel was Charles Swartz of USC and Walt Ordway, the chief technologist of the Digital Cinema Initiative (today is their last day officially in existence). Marty Shindler, a consultant and analyst, moderated.

First, I'll tell you about the clips, and then offer up some of my notes from the panel.

But before that, I should mention an unfortunate snafu. The presentation relied on active glasses, which use LCD panels to turn off the left eye and right eye alternately, so that each eye only sees the frames that are intended for it. Part of the audience (including me) had gray plastic glasses from NuVision (pictured at right), and part of the audience had black glasses from Crystal Eyes. The latter didn't work (Joshua Greer of Real D said that the infrared emitter, which syncs up the glasses with the projector, hadn't been set up for the CrystalEyes glasses. Real D happens to own the company that makes them.), and so each 3D clip was shown twice. (I didn't mind - most were worth seeing twice.) People shared glasses with one another.

We were told that active glasses today cost about $200 per pair. Passive glasses with polarized lenses, which Disney will use for "Chicken Little," cost less than $1 per pair - which means they can be considered disposable, and don't have to be collected and cleaned after each showing. Greer modeled a pair of the bright green glasses that Disney will distribute - they're modeled after those that the movie's star, Chicken Little, sports. (They look a bit like Harry Potter's round glasses.)

The clips included a segment from Universal's Shrek 4-D movie, shown in the theme parks; a reel from Jim Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment, with pieces from a Terminator movie he made for the Universal parks and his "Aliens of the Deep" and "Titanic: Ghosts of the Abyss" IMAX 3-D films; a really thrilling sequence from the IMAX 3D version of "Polar Express," which I didn't see in the theater, but which apparently grossed $45 million in IMAX theaters; sequences from "Star Wars: Episode IV" and "Spiderman" that had been "dimensionalized" by In-Three; and, my favorite, a trailer for Steve Schklair's IMAX movie about the Super Bowl, which features my New England Patriots prevailing in Super Bowl 39 (no time for Roman numerals right now). Schklair told me he hasn't cut the full film yet, and is still in negotiations with the NFL over what'll be in it, and when it'll be released. Sounded like he might also need to shoot more games.

On to the discussion:

  • The most interesting debate was about when 3D will arrive in the living room. Not surprisingly, the guys who are most invested in rolling out theatrical 3D think it's not going to happen anytime soon. (I think they're wrong.) Michael Kaye, the CEO of In-Three, said it is "at least five years away," talking specifically about autostereoscopic displays that won't require glasses. Kaye also said that bigger is better - the theatrical experience provides a more impressive sense of depth than can be had on even a 40 or 50 inch home screen. Greer from Real D agreed, and says the earliest displays, on their way to the market now, will be too expensive to appeal to a mass market. Without a mass market, Greer said, there won't be enough programming - which in turn will make the displays slow to catch on.

    But Shklair and Glenn Kennel of Texas Instruments disagreed. Schklair says that at recent trade shows, he did demos that involved shooting live 3D soccer games and sending them to autostereoscopic displays that'll be on sale as soon as next Christmas. He said they had an "expanded sweet spot," which means the 3D effect isn't just viewable from a particular place in front of the screen. Schlkair said 20 or 30 people crowded around the monitors, and got a good experience. Schklair said that just as live events prompted people to buy TV sets in the middle part of last century, live sports and news coverage may encourage them to buy 3D sets.

    Kennel said that some displays containing TI's DLP chip are 3D capable today.

  • Peter Anderson, a cinematographer and member of ACM Siggraph, stood up in the audience after all the clips had been shown and protested. "This doesn't represent my movies," he said, complaining about the brightness and the quality of the color. Everyone on the panel acknowledged that attaining optimal brightness is still a problem for 3D, and even Anderson admitted that he'd seen the same clips projected in a more satisfactory way at Real D's screening room. Glenn said that today there are no standards on how bright digital 3D shows must be, and said that the clips last night were shown on too large a screen. Later, Anderson told me that when Universal shows Shrek 4-D in its parks (a movie he worked on), they use four projectors -- two each for the left eye images and right eye images-- to get the picture to be bright enough. (I'm no expert, but my understanding is that the image gets darkened either by a polarizer in front of the projector, and/or by the glasses themselves.)

  • There are no standards for digital 3D today, but the Digital Cinema Initiative standard, ratified this summer, can encompass 3D standards as they're developed. (And SMPTE's digital cinema group now has a 3D subcommittee, led by Matt Cowan.)

  • Greer and George Scheckel of QuVis both agreed that 3D deployments can be complex. It sounds like Real D has its hands full with the "Chicken Little" deployment, and Greer alluded to a shortage of projectors being responsible for bringing the number of theaters down from 100 to 85. (But a shortage of time was probably also a factor - he said the company had just four months to get ready for the November 4th release.) Greer said its best to use one projector rather than two; Scheckel said it's better to use one server instead of two. (QuVis' rival, Dolby, will use two servers, one supplying a left eye stream, and one for the right eye, for "Chicken Little." The demos last night used a QuVis server.) Keeping everything in tune and in sync is simply harder with two of anything.

  • Greer and Schklair both think that 3D eventually will colonize just about every screen on which we view content: movie screens, TV screens, cell phone screens, computer screens. It'll be "everywhere there's a visual display that can be enhanced by 3D," Greer said. "We're binocular beings."

  • Everyone acknowledged that when technologies first arrive, whether its 3D or surround sound or color, they're sometimes in an attention-getting way at first. (This was certainly the case with the First Coming of 3D in the 1950s.) But Greer said, "People will figure out how not to use it as a gimmick, but as a storytelling tool." I think that's already the case with some of the documentaries Jim Cameron has made for IMAX.

  • Shooting live events 3D will present a challenge for directors new to the medium, like "not ripping people's eyes out," Schklair quipped.

  • Moderator Marty Shindler presented some useful stats. There are 140 IMAX 3D theaters worldwide today. The cost of a 3D print for IMAX is $35,000 to $50,000 (compared to $20,000 to $25,000 for a 2D IMAX print.) As far as regular digital screens, there are about 100 in North America, and 200 in the rest of the world. The hope is that as digital projectors and servers roll out, they'll all be capable of showing 3D -- and that 3D may provide audiences' first introduction to digital cinema. (I worry about entwining the two, actually: digital cinema = 3D?)

  • Greer predicts there will be 1000 digital screens in the US within 18 months, "assuming we can get enough projectors built." Brian Claypool of Christie said that there had been a sudden surge in projector demand this year - from little demand to lots.

  • The idea was floated that 3D commercials shown before movies might entertain audiences more than today's ads. (Toyota has apparently made one already.) This audience didn't seem to buy that.

  • Among the 3D movies in the pipeline, besides "Chicken Little": "Monster House," "Ant Bully," "Food Fight," and a dimensionalized version of "Star Wars," in 2007.

  • Joshua Greer said that the tipping point for 3D could be the release of one important and successful 3D film, which would spur lots of directors and studios to get into 3D. "We always dream of the idea of the 'Citizen Kane' of 3D. We're just at the early stages now."

  • Charles Swartz, who runs USC's Entertainment Technology Center, had a great closing remark: A lot of the clips shown at the event had been seen at conferences and trade shows around the world, but not in Hollywood, he observed. "Ultimately, it's the creative community that has to take this technology and find ways to use it."


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