Live and recorded 3D stereoscopic productions are on the rise fuelling consumer interest in 3D screens capable of viewing them, writes Adrian Pennington.
The technology to produce, transmit and view three-dimensional programming in the home just requires fine-tuning.
Philips is already selling 3D TV sets to the commercial advertising market for up to US $40,000 each, and the company is confident that cheaper versions costing $2,400 will be available by 2011 when enough content would be available to justify splashing out on the new technology.
There are signs that this is happening - particularly in the field of live sports and wildlife documentaries.
Stereoscopy is booming in Hollywood, where 3D features are taking around three times more box office receipts per screen than 2D versions of the same film.
Its eye-catching success has attracted the attention of the corporate communications industry where 3D can deliver a genuine wow! factor on digital out-of-home signage. Live pay per view or public large screen events are also seen as ripe for exploitation with music and sports being the most applicable genres.
"The rise of stereo is not dissimilar to the evolution of HD," notes David Wooster, a director of 3D production specialists The3DFirm. "There's an element of test and experiment before delivery to a mass audience. The next step is to expand 3D techniques into outside broadcasting."
If Vince Pace has led the field in Los Angeles, (his expertise is behind the pioneering feature work of director James Cameron and the first 3D broadcasts of a live event - NBA basketball), The 3DFirm is Europe's leader.
It piloted the first satellite-delivered multi-camera 3D event (of an international rugby match last March), and subsequently worked with Swiss producers HBS to create a 3D feed from the Ice Hockey Federation World Championship in Canada.
The interest of HBS is significant since it holds the contract for the host broadcast of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. "3D is on our radar and we'd like it to be on FIFA's radar," says Peter Angell, director of HBS' Production and Programming Division.
There's an increasingly strong likelihood that major sports events like the World Cup, and the 2012 London Olympics will feature simulcast 3D/HD production.
The stereo transmission will be viewed over large screens and HBS, one of the world's leading OB producers, is keen to establish a workflow.
"One of the critical things about the way we tackled ice hockey was to start by adopting a regular broadcast workflow and trying to make that work in 3D rather than taking a feature film 3D approach and trying to make that work in a broadcast environment," says Angell.
"What that effectively means is working with existing OB equipment and not designing bespoke rigs for each project. If 3D OBs are to take off, production needs to be plug-and-play as well as cost-effective using standard EVS machines and vision mixers," Angell adds.
Three static pairs of Thomson LDK 6000 cameras were triax-cabled and gen-locked to a vision mixing truck.
The feeds were then recorded to EVS XT servers and then to HD recorders synced by timecode.
Feeds were previewed on a small monitor using polarised glasses in the truck. A pair of Iconix HD-RH1s for point-of-view shots was also used.
"The doubling of everything is the main cost," reports Angell. "For every one camera position, you need two cameras and two sync paths throughout the truck. Slow motion requires dual EVS channels. Half the amount of inputs is available on the vision mixer and router. Besides that, the workflow is the same.
"Any stakeholder in any major sports event will be looking at 3D over the next twelve months to see if there's a business model which works," claims Angell.
France Telecom has done just that by planning to test 3D HD production of the French premier league soccer for the potential launch of such a service by 2009 over its Orange broadband TV to customers in France.
According to Orange's head of 3D Services, Philippe Delbary, it may take six months to a year to learn how and where to place cameras and how to produce a good 3D HD football match.
"Broadcast 3D adoption needs to be synchronised with the supply of consumer displays but we think it could become mass market by 2011," Delbary explains.
Future experiments for The3DFirm include producing super-slow motion 3D; mixing crowd atmospherics into a surround mix and inserting replay action into sections of the 3D viewing area. Even something as standard as a graphical clock indicating game progress needs reworking in terms of presentation - does it sit on the screen plane or closer to the audience?
"Editorially, stereo works best by trying to replicate the atmosphere of being in a stadium and not mimicking traditional 2D coverage," observes Wooster.
Other problems with OB recording include minimising the size of the camera rig so it doesn't obscure the view of spectators and increasing the number of cameras, particularly at pitchside, to provide new angles and focal lengths.
Adrian Kingston, SIS OB's lead engineering manager for Wimbledon, contends that if there's to be widespread stereo production, it will end up parallel to the main production - one set of cameras providing images for 3DHD, HD, SD, internet and mobile applications.
3D wildlife documentaries
With the notable exception of German producer Telcast Media, which has been creating and distributing 3D content for viewing over standard TV sets using simple anaglyph (red/green lensed) glasses for a decade, stereo has not advanced into recorded broadcast genre.
"Our track record increases ratings of shows with 3D by 50%," claims Telcast president Thomas Hohenacker.
Telcast, he says, is the only company to have successfully implemented 3DTV with major broadcasters - TF1, Discovery and the BBC, among them. The company's catalogue includes wildlife and travel series 3D Planet. Its 3-D Megashark aired on Discovery and it shot Miss France in 3D for TF1.
"Documentary and natural history producers should be looking to create 3D versions of programming now for archive in the same way that they produced HD content years before general HD transmission," declares Quantel's strategic marketing manager Mark Horton. "Assets will have a longer life span as 3D HD."
Indeed Phil Streather, CEO, Principal Large Format and the producer of Imax 3D Bugs! has consulted for Discovery's Animal Planet, the BBC's Natural History Unit and National Geographic on these lines.
"We're working out the math of the extra expense required for 3D, which is about 20% over HD," says Streather. "It's perfectly possible to shoot 3D natural history but you need very costly bespoke camera systems to get close-ups with wide-angle lenses."
London's broadcast post-production facilities remain sceptical that stereo projects will exceed more than 10-15% of their total workload by 2012.
Nonetheless, facilities need to prepare for client requests and executives will visit IBC with an eye to new 3D-enabled kit likely to be on offer.
By virtue of being the first to market in this space a year ago Quantel, with 3D software options for Pablo and iQ, and Iridas' SpeedGrade offers the most mature range of tools.
Rivals Digital Vision, Autodesk and Avid are also developing for 3D with each technology broadly designed to automate the process of applying changes such as grading, reframing or mask animation made in one channel (relating to one eye) to the second channel. The biggest post-production cost for 3D is, after all, time.
"You need very flexible conform tools and a way to simultaneously monitor in 3D and side-by-side," explains Simon Cuff, CEO, Digital Vision.
"This is because cut points, dissolves and scene selection are very important in respect of the stereoscopic experience as well as the story telling. We have stereoscopic conform, playback and mastering features in development and will look to incorporate our motion estimation technology to assist in the editorial and mastering process."
Software developer The Foundry has developed Ocula, a series of plug-ins that also automatically replicates key processes on left and right channels.
Adds Telecast's Hohenacker: "If we had two-dimensional vision, we would lose our balance.3D is all about giving the eye a point of reference in a shot since that's how we perceive reality."
Although that is true, there is a fear that 3D might be overused until people get it right through trials and tests.
As Streather of Principal Large Format says, "The creative trick is not to get seduced by having things pop out at the audience but to use 3D to provide a subtle hyper-reality to story telling. 3D will become a tool, like surround sound, that merges into the background of the viewing experience."
Stereoscopic imaging presents different images of the saame scene for each eye - reproducing the human binocular vision.
Although the process needs to be pin-point accurate, at its simplest it requires aligning two cameras in parallel, or on top of each other separated by a mirror, and recording the dual feeds (one per eye) before re-combining them in post for viewing through special glasses. The distance between each lens is termed interocular.
For live broadcasts, dual cameras with wide-angle lenses are given a set interocular distance (typically 2.5-inches - the same as adult human eye width) for the event's duration.
Recorded programming has more latitude from shot to shot so directors can play with the exact point at which our eyes converge on the focal point of interest.
Our eyes will always tend to focus on the 2D screen plane but by overlaying images (either on set or in-post) our brain can be tricked into converging on a point of interest that is either in front of the screen plane (called Negative Parallax) for 'out of the screen effects' or 'behind' the screen plane (Positive Parallax) giving depth effects.
Essentially the DP is playing with the Z axis - where the Y Axis is up and down, the X Axis is side to side and the Z Axis is forward and back.