A strange week for 3D and TV
This is the kind of week it’s been in the world of TV and video, with stories not necessarily in chronological order…
First up: The 3D debate got hotter and well, weirder, when Roger Ebert – who has maligned the technology openly in the past – declared the format “inferior and inherently brain-confusing.” To prop up his thesis, he quotes liberally from fellow 3D-denier and award-winning editor, Walter Murch – whose work you are familiar with if you’ve ever watched Apocalypse Now, Ghost or The English Patient.
Now there’s no question that Murch’s credentials as far as the art form of cinematic editing is beyond reproach. But in a recent letter to Ebert, he goes way beyond a critique of 3D from the perspective of editing, citing biological arguments against the format such as:
[…] the “CPU” of our perceptual brain has to work extra hard, which is why after 20 minutes or so many people get headaches. They are doing something that 600 million years of evolution never prepared them for.
He’s referring to the process by which our eyes must try to converge on two different focal lengths in rapid succession. Now he may very well be right that this is the component of 3D that has caused undesirable effects amongst some viewers, but to claim that our very biology isn’t up to the task because of how we’ve evolved strikes me as a reach.
I get that Ebert hates 3D – heck I even agree with some of the points he’s made in the past – and I get that Murch isn’t impressed by it either, but I’m not buying the so-called scientific explanation as to why it sucks. Read the full post and see if you’re on-board or not.
Next: A new report suggests that this is the year we will see Blu-ray players for as little as $40 and 42″ LCD HDTVs coming in at under $300. Despite the fact that these devices will likely not support advanced features such as 3D, Wi-Fi or streaming, those are nonetheless stunning price points. It looks like 2011 will be the year that fantastic picture quality will be within reach of nearly every economic group in the West.
Finally, Pioneer and Sharp have announced that they will be creating a new line of LCD HTDVs that will bear the “Elite” badge – a marque that hasn’t graced a TV display since Pioneer discontinued its production of plasma panels last year. But this new venture, rather than being a rebirth of the TVs that earned CNET’s highest rating of any HDTV, appears to be at best a new line of LCD’s from Sharp with Pioneer’s Elite designation and at worst, nothing more than a re-badging of Sharp’s existing line-up of high-end models.
At first it might seem that this is a dig at Sharp. It isn’t. I’ve had the chance to audition their latest line-up of Quattron 3D TVs and I was duly impressed by their image quality and feature set. They’re good TVs. But they aren’t plasma and they aren’t Pioneer units – in short, they aren’t “Elite”. Now I realize I should withhold final judgement until I see the new Elites in the flesh, but I am (as you can tell) highly skeptical. I’m also a little stunned that Pioneer – a company that put plasma on the map – has decided to back LCD as a display technology after all this time. I would have much preferred that they partner with Panasonic, a company that has stayed the course on plasma and has inherited Pioneer’s HDTV crown as a result. Perhaps Pioneer believed that LCD will eventually eclipse plasma as the best display technology, or maybe they’re just looking for a more cost-effective way to re-enter the TV business without having to actually make their own glass. Either way, I worry that the Elite marque – so long a pinnacle of quality in the A/V space – will be diminished by this move.
Update, Jan 30: I knew I had forgotten something. Back on the 20th, CNET’s David Katzmaier wrote an interesting piece concerning the merits of active vs. passive 3D based on his experiences comparing VIZIO’s new passive-3D TV (XVT3D650SV) to Panasonic’s class-leading active-3D set (TC-P65VT25). The results are instructive for those who are looking to make their move into the 3D arena: Passive possesses quite a few advantages over active (and I suspect will become the standard soon) but falls short in one key area which I hadn’t previously realized – the VIZIO TV at least, can’t do full HD in 3D. Their passive system uses a circular polarizer to blend two 540p images – that’s half the resolution of Panny’s active system which can present the full 1080p signal to each eye. I’m sure as newer passive systems come on the market, this limitation will be overcome, but in the meantime, active 3D would seem to be the better choice for folks who aren’t willing to sacrifice a pixel of their Blu-ray material.
Bell TV Launches Video On Demand, 1080p Hi-Def Movies
In the ultra-competitive world of TV distribution, particularly here in Canada, the big battle has been waged predominantly between cable and satellite providers. Cable companies traditionally speak of their advantage over satellite in areas like reliability, Video on Demand (VOD) and quick channel-changes. Satellite for its part makes claims around superior picture quality and geographic coverage.
Today however, the landscape has changed yet again, with Bell TV announcing that it has launched satellite-based VOD – a first of its kind in Canada.
Typically, satellite customers have been able to order scheduled Pay Per View programming, but the infrastructure needed to handle true real-time access to videos on demand hasn’t been available. Now, not only is VOD possible, the movies are being made available in what’s known as “Full HD” or 1080p, meaning that these movies are being streamed at the equivalent of Blu-ray quality. By way of comparison, all broadcast HD programming on cable and satellite is typically done in 720p – slightly less than half the resolution of 1080p. This is the first time 1080p has been made available in Canada. If you’ve been resisting the call of Blu-ray so far, Bell TV’s offering may mean you can forego that purchase altogether.
As of this announcement, the selection of available VOD content was slim – only 10 movies. However, if the selection of content on Bell’s IPTV product – Fibe TV – is any indicator, many more movies and shows should be available soon. According to Bell, new titles will be “made available every week.”
To access Bell TV’s VOD service (see their FAQ here), you’ll need one of their HD PVRs – either the 9242 or the 9241. To enjoy the full HD 1080p signal, you’ll need to have one of these PVRs connected to a 1080p-capable HDTV. No word yet whether Bell will extend the service to their PVR-capable 6131 HD receivers.
Update: As one of the commenters pointed out below, these receivers only show two HD options: 720p and 1080i. So how does one achieve full 1080p? The answer from Bell is:
The set top box automatically overrides the existing setting and outputs at 1080p. The output settings will include 1080p in the future when there is 1080p broadcast available.
Movies cost $6.99 per title for up to 48-hour access, and are available instantly by remote control on channel 1000 or by calling 1-866-68 ORDER.
Disclosure: Sync is owned and operated by Bell Canada.
ESPN to Launch 3D Network in 2010
According to industry publication Broadcasting and Cable, ESPN’s plans
“will feature a minimum of 85 live sporting events in its first year, starting with the first 2010 FIFA World Cup match on June 11 featuring South Africa vs. Mexico. Other events to be produced in 3D include up to 25 2010 FIFA World Cup matches, Summer X Games, college basketball, and college football, which will include the BCS National Championship game in Glendale, Ariz., January 10, 2011.”
Although no announcements have been made regarding which cable or satellite companies will be offering the new network, ESPN’s move into the 3D space is a major milestone in the development of this still nascent technology for the home.
With the recent standardization of 3D content on the Blu-ray hi-def format, and TV manufacturers of all stripes promising 3D-capable HDTVs in 2010, the last major hurdle in the in-home 3D experience is broadcast content. ESPN’s move, while not necessarily an indicator of what all the networks will do, signals that broadcasters are ready to embrace 3D.
The question that remains however, is what will this new format cost the consumer?
We know why TV manufacturers are pushing 3D: they need to drive the demand for the next wave of purchases now that the penetration of HDTVs is close to hitting 50% in the U.S. But studies show that only 25% consumers are willing to pay more for 3D in the home. However 67% said they’d pay more for a 3D Blu-ray disc compared to the 2D version.
That’s good news for the movie industry, which already understands the value of 3D: they have been rewarded by their investment as box office receipts for movies like James Cameron’s Avatar clearly demonstrate – it raked in $1 billion worldwide in its first 17 days of theatrical release. If Hollywood can squeeze a second layer of revenue from their 3D titles in the form of 3D Blu-ray discs as they have always managed to do with VHS and then DVD, their costs will be further justified.
But what’s in it for broadcasters?
Perhaps they hope that a new offering of content in 3D will help stem the tide of viewers who are increasingly drawn to the net for their video needs. In an era of YouTube, the need to differentiate TV from web is critical, and the advent of HD hasn’t proven to be a big enough lure so far: according to DisplaySearch, only two thirds (67%) of people who own an HDTV subscribe to HD content from their provider.
Alternatively, 3D channels may only be available as pay-per-view or premium upgrades to existing cable/satellite.
If the broadcasters do start to get their 3D acts together, our friends over at TVGuide.ca have the following advice: 10 TV Shows We Want To See In 3D
Now the question for you, our readers: Where are you on the 3D @ home curve? Super-excited? Mildly interested? Couldn’t care less?
3-D HD Standard Coming To Blu-ray Disc
The good news: if you’ve been jazzed about the idea of watching the kind of 3D content that has taken movie theatres by storm (think Up!, Monsters Vs. Aliens and this weekend’s hotly anticipated Avatar), it won’t be long now before you’ll be able to pick up a 3D TV and Blu-ray player that will make this concept a reality.
The bad news: If I just described you, you have probably already made big investments in home theatre tech and are sitting in front of your 1080p HDTV and Blu-ray player as you read this, and both of these purchases just became obsolete.
Which is – of course – exactly what the major manufacturers had hoped to achieve. As the Wall Street Journal points out, the past year or so has not been kind to companies like Sony and Panasonic who have seen their profits quickly eroded amidst price wars that have consumed the market. Suddenly affordable flat screens have been a boon to consumers who have been buying them up at record rates, but it has made it difficult for the manufacturers to re-coup their significant investments in these technologies.
Thus, 3-D represents a holy grail of sorts.
It turns out that the process by which they make traditional flat-screen technologies like LCD and plasma 3-D capable, isn’t that expensive. And with the Blu-ray Disc Association’s announcement that they have reached a formal standard for 3D content, that is compatible with *any* 3D display, the content hurdle seems to have been effectively removed.
But neither of these advances are upgrade-friendly with older tech, in the sense that existing HDTVs cannot be made 3D, and existing Blu-ray players cannot be converted to output a 3D signal. New purchases must be made if you are going to go 3D.
But there might be a bright side. The WSJ reports that, “a Sony executive said it might be looking at charging an extra $200 for its 3-D televisions—mainly to cover its costs and the price of the specially made glasses.” That’s not a major premium for such a significant feature. When you look back at the price difference between 720p and 1080p HDTVs of similar size, there was often a 100% price bump for the 1080p model. I still maintain that at many reasonable distances, you still can’t appreciate this difference enough to warrant the extra dollars. Of course, both 3D TVs and Blu-ray players promise to be backward compatible with all 2D content.
For folks who have already bought both pieces of equipment, the situation is obvious: 3D is going to mean an expensive trip to your local big box electronics retailer. But for those of you who have resisted the call of HDTV so far, you may be rewarded by your Luddite cautious instincts. You now have the choice to buy-in to current technology at rock-bottom prices, or wait a little longer and be the first on your block to grab the 3D bull by the horns, without having to convince your parents to buyCraigslist your old HDTV and Blu-ray player.
Speaking of cautious instincts, I have been less than enthralled by this whole prospect of in-home 3D. While I have enjoyed the 3D movies that I’ve seen in theatres, the fact that they were 3D was of way less importance to me than the fact that they told a good story. My favourite movie of 2009 – Star Trek – wasn’t 3D, and though watching it in 3D might have made it more visually thrilling, it was the superb script, casting and cinematography that made it the incredible experience that it was.
Film and TV industry, if you’re reading, take note: I’m not going to watch 3D for the sake of 3D. But if you happen to have a great production on your hands, and it can be made even better with the use of 3D, go for it… but I’m still not rushing out to upgrade any time soon.
Related: Check out the WSJ’s graphic on the two competing in-home 3D display systems.
Blu-ray 'flipper' discs finally coming
According to CNET’s Crave blog, Universal Studios is set to release the first title on the market to use the “flipper disc” format: A single disc that contains the Blu-ray version of a movie on one side, while the traditional DVD format is available on the other side:
The “Bourne” trilogy (“Identity,” “Supremacy,” “Ultimatum”) will be the first movies to get the dual-sided treatment, with all three discs coming out on January 19.
It’s been a while getting here though. EngadgetHD first reported on this new format almost a year ago. While we’ve been waiting, some of the studios have opted to market combo-sets for their releases: A Blu-ray disc bundled with a DVD disc.
While there are advantages to having dedicated discs for each format (keeping the DVD copy at where your DVD player is, and storing the Blu-ray version elsewhere) most consumers balk at the idea of paying a hefty premium for this package.
If the studios can bring the price of these new flipper discs in-line with existing Blu-ray prices, I think consumers will respond positively and start buying these new discs instead of the cheaper, but ultimately obsolete, DVD discs.
For my part, I’m a little ambivalent on Blu-ray. Our HDTV is 720p – fantastic for all of the currently available HD broadcasts/movie network/PPV that we receive. Our upconverting DVD player does a great job making our DVDs look their best. I’ve even hooked up a Blu-ray player that I borrowed from a neighbour to see how it would look. The verdict? Meh.
At this point, I’m not rushing to buy a Blu-ray player or movies in the Blu-ray format. Of course, that could change if the price of both the players and discs experience another massive price drop as they have over the last 12 months.
What do you think? Are you tired of buying DVDs that you know won’t be as fun to watch when you eventually buy a Blu-ray player? Or are you cold on the whole Blu-ray platform? Convinced physical formats as a whole are destined for extinction?