3D.. .Fad or Future of Digital Imaging?

3D.. .Fad or Future of Digital Imaging?


With so much recent talk and promotion of 3D, one might think that it is a newly discovered technology, but think again. 3D goes back to 1838 when Sir Charles Wheatstone first explained “stereopsis”, the perception of depth. In 1851, Queen Victoria was captivated with a still-image “stereoscope” and 3D handheld viewers became all the rage, selling millions. In 1890, the stereo film camera was first introduced. Around 1915, the first red/blue “anaglyph” movies were shown to broad audiences.

However, it wasn't until 1953 that 3D movies became very popular, including the famous “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” But the craze faded and during the last 50 years, 3D has been there but far from the spotlight—until last year.

Recently, I have been visiting with our Cobra customers who represent some of the top digital camera buyers in the United States to present the new Cobra 3D Digital Camera. I had many interesting conversations and found significant differences in opinion on whether 3D is another fad or the future of digital imaging. Some buyers were sold before I walked in, totally convinced of the future of 3D and other buyers think 3D is just a craze that will go nowhere. They felt that the projected sales of 1.4 million 3DTV sets in 2010 and 13 million sets next year are only a huge media dream. Some mentioned that the technology in consumer 3D products is unproven, too expensive, not standardized and not compelling enough to attract the consumer. And, who is the customer for 3D products anyway? In all cases, however, there was strong agreement on one factor: 3D will not succeed until there is more 3D content available.

So in what direction are we going, another fad or the future of digital imaging, and what 3D content is on the way?

At CES 2010 in Las Vegas, if you looked closely, you could find a surprisingly large number of 3D products being introduced beyond the most publicized 3D TVs diplayed by Samsung, LG, Mitsubishi, Panasonic and others. The 3DTV sets seemed to catch the fancy of the national news media, but there was a lot more 3D to be seen. Art Berman of Insight Media, in his article “3D Tidal Wave at CES”, mentions a long list of 3D products he found at the show, including 3D Computers, 3D set-top boxes, 3D on cell phones, 3D signage, gaming, projection screens, photo frames, broadcasting, players, 3D glasses, 3D software and more. Clearly, we can see that there is significant investment in new 3D development taking place throughout a broad range of products.

What has changed?

First and foremost, are the new advancements made in 3D digital technology relating to software, cameras, displays, projectors, etc., which have changed everything. What was done in the past with film and related hardware simply cannot compare with the beauty, depth, realism and action in today's digital 3D productions. Clearly in this area, computer advances and memory storage capacities have been a huge contributor to add 3D to many different products.

There is also a change in the swinging marketing pendulum with TV suppliers at both the factory and retail levels. Theoretically, all present-day TV sets might be replaced with new 3DTV sets (Imagine the size of that market). So, we will see a huge advertising and marketing push this Christmas season and next year to convince the consumer that they now need a 3DTV to find true happiness in life.

Another change is the rapidly growing popularity of digital games. 3D technology is starting to add a realism and challenge to digital games never imagined before, and Nintendo, Sony and others are hot on this trail. Ever hear of “Call of Duty” or “Final Fantasy”? Ask your kids.

Further, we are part of the change. The stunning momentum behind the digital imaging revolution now taking place in our lives is helping to drive 3D as the next phase in this revolution. We want exciting new technology products. We are no longer happy with voice-only telephones, printed billboards changed monthly, sales presentations on Xerox copies or handwritten notes that we passed around the class room for our social contact. Now we must have an Apple iPod with a brilliant color image display and a constantly changing LCD/LED digital display in stores, next to highways, in stadiums, airports, etc., and large HD color laptop displays or digital projectors to make a presentation. Let's not forget our digital images and videos passed along on Facebook, YouTube, etc. for today's social contacts. Can you imagine how 3D will add to all of these experiences? Consumers today just crave this kind of tech.

Why is the change happening this year? Almost all of us have heard of the success of the “Avatar” movie, which was introduced December 18, 2009. For this article, I checked the up-to-date revenue from the film. Hold on to your popcorn box! As of May 10, 2010, “Avatar” has grossed $2.8 billion (yes, that is a B) in theater revenue. So what did the film cost to make? Per the New York Times, total gross production and marketing cost was about $460 million. Do the math. This is about a 600 percent return in less than five months. Do you think anyone in Hollywood is paying attention? What about the CE factories and retailers?

According to Marketsaw.com, as of May 2 of this year there was 36 new 3D movies rumored to be on the way to production. My personal favorite on the list is “Fantastic Voyage” by James Cameron of “Avatar” fame, but others might like “Baywatch”, “Godzilla 3D” or “RoboCop 3D” which are also on the list. In the confirmed and date TBA category, there are another 44 new 3D movies in production right now. Another category, 3D movies finished and already scheduled for 2010 introduction lists 30 more, and already scheduled for 2011 introduction has 25. The display on my 2D calculator says 135 new 3D movies in the next 2 1/2 years.

What about 3DTV broadcast?

This seems to be a chicken and egg situation. Why broadcast in 3D if the 3DTV receivers do not exist, and why have a 3DTV if there are no 3D broadcasts? While there is very little programming today in 3DTV, it seems that the industry is going to jump on board quickly. In June, the enormously popular FIFA World Cup soccer matches will be broadcast worldwide in 3D. Korea will beam its first stereoscopic 3DTV programs over terrestrial broadcasting networks on May 19, and Japanese broadcasters have also been exploring 3D programs.

Closer to home in the U.S., DirecTV and the Yes Network plan to televise what they say will be the first Major League Baseball games in 3D. The New York Yankees vs. the Seattle Mariners games on July 10 and July 11 will be the first two games with more to follow. What would Babe Ruth think? Further, all of the major U.S. cable providers are planning 3D channels, but according to James Cameron, 3DTV is still in its infancy. “The TVs are going to take a while to catch up with the marketplace,” he tells USA Today. “Right now we've got a content gap.”

Even though there is a gap in 3DTV programs and the first 3DTV sets are just being delivered to the stores, and all other 3D consumer products are still in their infancy, I think this is a temporary situation when you consider all of the other momentum surrounding 3D tech. The huge success of “Avatar” is the starting gun, and let's not forget that a rising tide lifts all ships.

The situation today reminds me of the fax machine market. Fax machines had been around for years, before suddenly there was a spontaneous explosion of worldwide demand for fax machines. What happened? Initially fax machines slowly entered the market and there were very few fax numbers to send a fax to. Chicken and egg. However, over the years as the number of fax machines expanded there was a critical mass that was hit and everyone had to have a fax machine to do business and stay competitive. For 3DTV programming, and all other 3D products, I think this critical mass spontaneous explosion of demand will occur much quicker than it did for fax machines. After all, we do everything today much faster.

For those with more curiosity, check out the Consumers Report's article, “The future of 3D TV: Here is why it will succeed, despite hurdles” at http://blogs.consumerreports.org/electronics/3d-tv/. I could not agree more.

Bill Pearson is President of Cobra Digital and also a member of CEA's Digital Imaging Division.