3D Technology Creates Buzz But What About Bucks?
As expected, much of the buzz at the League Technology Summit was focused on stereoscopic 3D and its impact on the sports production community. While ESPN and DirecTV are now regularly producing 3D fare for new 3D channels—with financial help from set-makers Sony and Panasonic—many questions remain about 3D’s long-term business prospects. What was clear from a tour of the Summit’s show floor is that leading production vendors are moving forward to support 3D technology and take stereoscopic production past the “science experiment” stage.
For example, Panasonic demonstrated its AG-3DA1 twin-lens 3D camcorder, which was formally introduced at last January’s Consumer Electronics Show and began shipping in September. Demand for the $21,000 camcorder, which records left-and right-eye images on separate solid-state memory cards, has been strong. Panasonic has shipped more than 1,000 units and still has many on backorder, says Panasonic strategic accounts technologist Steve Mahrer.
“They’re out there in droves,” adds Mahrer, who says that many have gone to rental companies while others have gone to ESPN, MLB, DirecTV and even NASA, which is using 3D to document crew training for space missions. Most of the early work with the AG-3DA1 has seen production companies and networks simply experimenting with the camera to learn more about 3D in a cost-effective way although it has played a key role in 3D productions of the MLB All-Star Game and US Open tennis.
“It’s the only camera like it,” notes Mahrer. “They can dip their toe in the water, and see if it works for them.”
With its internal convergence processing, the twin-lens AG-3DA1 camera can deliver a realistic 3D effect from a distance of six to eight feet up to 100 yards, says Mahrer, “and you don’t need six guys in white coats.”
Third-party software has already been developed to help support a file-based workflow using the camcorder, such as “Dashwood,” a $99 software plug-in (created by cinematographer Tim Dashwood) to Apple Final Cut Pro that automatically marries the left-and-right eye images for easy editing. Panasonic also makes two low-cost compact 3D-capable switchers that can be used with the cameras.
Panasonic isn’t pitching the AG-3DA1 as a substitute for high-end rigs from 3D specialists like PACE and 3ality Digital, and has no current plans to create such a product on its own. Mahrer notes that such rigs, which include complex optics and lens servos, are “beautifully engineered.” If Panasonic endeavored to make one, he says, it would wind up with a “me-too” product that would be just as expensive—perhaps half-a-million dollars—targeting a market “that’s not big enough.”
Sony’s high-end HDC-1500 and P1 box cameras have been a favorite in 3D rigs, and its HDCAM-SR tape decks are the only VTRs capable of recording the dual left- and right-eye streams of 3D images in one deck. To support World Cup 3D coverage earlier this year, the company developed the MPE-200 processor, which has stereo image processing software that can help make adjustments between paired cameras and lenses in 3D rigs.
According to Sony Broadcast SVP of sales and marketing Alec Shapiro, Sony is currently working on other applications for the MPE-200. They include “camera stitching” functionality that could combine pictures from four cameras to make one picture, a 2D application that could potentially also be used in 3D production. Sony is also working to develop several “dedicated 3D products” that will be introduced at NAB in April, says Shapiro, including a shoulder-mounted, dual-lens camcorder that will likely record video on flash-memory drives.
Shapiro wouldn’t say whether the new Sony camcorder would be priced in the same range as Panasonic’s AG-3DA1, only that it will be “designed for professional use” and priced “competitively” for a high-quality camcorder.
Overall, Shapiro thinks that development of 3D production gear and techniques has gone faster than expected.
“Clearly, I don’t think any of us were really prepared when the CE manufacturers first said sets could show 3D,” he adds. “There’s been a lot of learning on the fly.”
He credits ESPN with doing “a phenomenal job” in streamlining the 3D workflow and notes that ESPN has cut down the set-up time for its college football coverage to where it’s no longer than a normal 2D shoot. But Shapiro says there is still more work to do to make stereoscopic 3D production an everyday occurrence. To put 3D in context, he points out how long it took high-definition production to take hold after its introduction decades ago.
“Everybody’s in a great rush, but all of this only took off a year ago,” says Shapiro. “This is all kind of new.”
Grass Valley is taking more of a wait-and-see approach to 3D. While Grass Valley’s modular cameras have been used in 3D rigs from 3ality and others, and its production switchers can pair two channels as one, the company isn’t developing any dedicated 3D products.
Tony Delp, camera market development manager for Grass Valley, notes that the 3D market is too small today and that the business model for 3D remains uncertain, with current productions mostly subsidized by set-makers.
“Who’s doing 3D production today?” says Delp. “If there was going to be a business in 3D, we would be a lot more aggressive, but nobody’s making any money on it.”
Switcher manufacturer Ross Video is seeing “heightened interest” in 3D, says business development manager Steve Romain, but like Grass Valley, the Canadian company isn’t seeing it drive sales. Romain stresses that Ross’ Vision switchers are capable of handling dual-stream 3D production if it takes off—a key question from customers looking to make the significant investment represented by a production switcher.
‘Their main concern is if 3D or 3-gig becomes reality, I can’t go back to the well again,” explains Romain. “So am I covered? And the answer is yes.”
Lens manufacturer Fujinon has been working closely with PACE and other 3D specialists to make its lenses, particularly long-zoom lenses, work more effectively for 3D sports production. At the Summit, it demonstrated how two of its smaller lens for box-type cameras (the A4x7.5BMD-DN L/R model) could be paired for 3D production and linked to a single control unit in its “3D Synchronous System.”
Fujinon national sales manager Thomas Calabro emphasizes that the lenses used for 3D are essentially the same as normal 2D lenses, and that optimizing them for 3D is more about upgrading the control system.
“The basic optics are already there,” says Calabro, who adds that long shots in 3D are still a challenge.
All Mobile Video equipped its new 3D truck Epic with Fujinon lenses, and ESPN and Discovery have bought new lenses for 3D production. But overall, Fujinon isn’t seeing 3D as a significant driver of new business.
“It’s a mixed bag,” says Calabro. “There are a lot of customers looking at it with a wary eye.”
Fujinon’s competitor Canon is involving itself in as many 3D projects it can, says Canon national marketing executive Larry Thorpe, but is “trying not to develop 3D lenses.”
Instead, Canon is aiming to have its standard lenses handle 3D by loading new software into the digital driver menus. By connecting two lenses via cables with standard 20-pin connectors, the new Canon software will be able to communicate with a pair of lenses, dial in the offset, and control the zoom, focus and iris.
As it looks to make 3D sports production more user-friendly, Canon is still trying to develop an easy way to handle misalignment in lenses paired for 3D due to tiny differences in the mechanical tolerances of both the lenses and the cameras. While two lenses can theoretically be matched perfectly for 3D, said Thorpe, once they are placed on two identical cameras there still may be out of alignment due to such tiny—but still significant—differences. That is the same problem that Sony’s MPE-200 processor was developed to address.
“That’s the big nut we’re still trying to crack,” says Thorpe.