To 3D or not to 3D? For streaming media content producers, providers, and distributors, that is indeed the question.
There’s no doubt that 3D streaming video offers a wow factor — something that should compel people to watch. But is the extra bandwidth, equipment, and cost really worth the expense — especially for streaming content to computer desktops and laptops? As William Shakespeare himself might say, there’s the rub: When it comes to cost-benefit analyses, the payoff from 3D streaming video is hard to quantify.
Act 1: Setting the Stage
3D video is making inroads into the consumer electronics marketplace. Major television manufacturers such as Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, and LG are all selling 3DTVs. Meanwhile, monitor makers such as Asus, Samsung, and Viewsonic are selling 3D- capable displays, which work with 3D graphics processors and glasses such as NVIDIA’s 3D Vision system.
Despite the relatively small amount of available 3D content (assorted 3D movies, broadcast content such as ESPN 3D’s sports programming, and NVIDIA’s own 3D streaming of the 2010 Masters Tournament and NASCAR racing), consumers are buying this technology. “According to CEA’s recently published [‘13th Annual CE Ownership and Market Potential Study,’] 3DTVs are now owned by 3% of US households,” writes Shawn DuBravac, the Consumer Electronics Association’s (CEA) chief economist and director of research (as posted to his blog, Two Opinions, at www.shawn dubravac.com). “More, given the rate at which 3DTVs are currently selling — the household ownership rates for 3DTV will increase significantly in 2011 (compared to 2010).”
The future looks similarly bright for 3D-capable personal computers, with Jon Peddie Research (JPR) predicting that 75 million “Stereo 3D (S3D) PCs” will have shipped by 2014. “S3D PCs will be very attractive to several important market segments,” says the summary of Jon Peddie Research’s “3D PCs—Stereovision in PCs” report at www.jonpeddie.com. “JPR expects to see S3D PCs achieve a much higher growth rate than their more traditional counterparts and, of course, they will have a higher ASP. As a result, the S3D PC market will be very attractive to PC manufacturers and content suppliers.”
Certainly, Jon Barad is pumped about 3DPCs and the 3D content that will serve them. Of course, as NVIDIA 3D Vision’s senior business development manager, Barad’s enthusiasm comes with the job. But there’s no mistaking the sincerity of his response to the question, “Is it worthwhile for streaming video producers to get into 3D?”
“I would say absolutely yes,” Barad says. “3D is going to be the emerging form of PC media that will be exciting, compelling, and [it] offers a unique way to enjoy and connect with the content.” It doesn’t hurt that NVIDIA 3D Vision is available as a plug-in for Microsoft Silverlight players (for 3D-enabled computers).
Actually, PCs and TVs can be superior to movie theaters when it comes to watching 3D, says Jason Goodman. He is the founder and CEO of 21st Century 3D (www.21stcentury3d.com), a full-service, stereoscopic 3D pro-duction company with offices in New York and Los Angeles.
“Many movie theaters showing 3D use low-cost projectors or run lamps at low power to extend their life. Their light levels are lower than they should be,” Goodman explains. “This can cause fatigue for viewers, exacerbating the ‘focus fixation breakdown’ as their eyes maintain focus on the theater screen but fixate on objects closer to or further than the actual screen.” In contrast, 3DTV and computer screens tend to deliver bright images that are easier and more comfortable to view, he notes. “As a result, watching 3D on a TV or PC could be a better experience than seeing it in a movie house.”
As for the bandwidth required to streaming 3D content, it’s not as much of an issue as one might think, according to Caitlin Spaan. She’s the spokesperson for VUDU (www.vudu.com), the on-demand video provider recently purchased by Walmart.
“We can share what requirements are needed to stream a 3D movie on VUDU,” Spann says. “Specifically, the requirements are the same as streaming 2D and begin at 1.4Mbps for SD. Minimum requirements for HDX 3D begins at 4.5Mbps. When it comes to encoding 3D content for VUDU, there is no special equipment. 3D video is transmitted as either side-by-side or top-bottom video through the workflow.”
What about clients who want to offer 3D content but don’t want the hassle of storing and serving it? That’s where third-party companies such as Fordela Corp. (www.fordela.com) come in. Fordela’s new Ambassador media platform is being billed as the world’s first cloud-based, automated, integrated 3D video management solution. Unveiled at NAB 2011, Ambassador supports NVIDIA’s 3D Vision Silverlight-compatible system, giving 3D content producers a one-stop-shop solution for streaming to the web.
“The content producer can simply log onto their account on our website, upload their videos, and then let us do the rest,” says Fordela CEO Jason Deadrich. “They can specify the playlist and the distribution list, and indeed all other qualifications that they need to set. But from there, we can do it all for them.”
Clearly, the stage has been set for 3D streaming content: The technology exists, is penetrating the marketplace, and performs well. The transmission bandwidth required is substantial, but not outrageous. One-stop-shop platform providers also exist. Which brings us to the next question: What is there to watch?
Act 2: Assembling the Players
To date, VUDU has more than 40 3D titles in stock, including Tron: Legacy and The Green Hornet. “As more 3D content is made available for home audiences, we intend to grow the offering so that we can provide our 3D-enabled customers with the most-convenient way to instantly access 3D content at home,” Spaan says. “Instead of searching retail stores for 3D content, or ordering the physical disc online and waiting for it to arrive, VUDU users can search our 3D movie library and get access to 3D movies the same day that they are released on DVD or Blu-ray. It’s far more convenient.”
On the PC side, inputting “watch 3D streaming video” into Google brings up dozens of pages of links (65 pages when this article was written). 3D videos can be found on popular sites such as YouTube; clearly, the content is out there.
For its part, NVIDIA is trying to encourage the production of free, quality 3D content through its own portal, www.3DVisionLive.com. “We offer 3D photos, 3D video, YouTube 3D video and 3D apps,” says Barad. “We are showcasing the work of creative 3D content producers, and generating a buzz about this content on the web.”
Act 3: The Play Considered
So far, we have seen how the stage has been set for 3D streaming video. We have reviewed the current cast of players, both for internet-connected TVs and desktop/ laptop PCs.
Now it is time to consider the play and the plot that drives it: What is 3D streaming media actually useful for? And what uses do not make sense — when is a producer in danger of unintentionally turning its 3D epic into a farce?
With 18 years’ experience as a stereographer (“Actually, I believe that I coined the term”), Goodman has had ample time to ponder this question. “When it comes to, ‘3D or not to 3D’, for me, it’s always 3D,” Goodman explains. “We experience life in 3D all the time; why would we not want visual stories to be told this way?”
Having said this, Goodman adds that 3D needs to be used “thoughtfully, artfully, and judiciously. Gratuitous or gimmicky effects become boring quickly. … When properly executed, cinematic 3D is the closest thing to magic I’m aware of.”
In this context, one can see how 3D could make sense in a training film; for instance, to walk the viewers around an engine that is being taken apart. 3D could also help explain mathematical equations in action, such as the trajectory of a bullet fired from a gun, as affected by wind and gravity. In fact, 3D video could be very useful in educational content that is widely streamed over the web by schools and corporations.
3D can also liven up a commercial or corporate video, as long as the ways in which it is used add substance, rather than meaningless sizzle. A 3D streaming video of a new car can make a difference if it brings the viewer in closer contact with the product. But if the 3D streaming video simply zooms the viewer in and out, like a bad 1950’s 3D horror film, then it actually detracts from what is being shown.
“The secret in using 3D is not to pigeon-hole it by project or genre,” Goodman observes. “Instead, consider 3D as a tool on a case-by-case basis; just as you would any other storytelling tool. And don’t think that you have to put 3D into people’s faces all the time. Sometimes the subtle use of 3D can enhance the story, without demanding the viewer’s total attention.”
Goodman offers a further caution about using 3D: It is still being seen as a fad in some production circles, which makes its acceptance uncertain. “It’s amazing how a bit of bad press about the box office performance of movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Kung Fu Panda 2 [which are both presented in 3D] can affect the business,” he notes. “The negative articles have definitely depressed the 3D production market, which shows that the market has yet to fully grasp 3D’s potential.”
This ambivalence is reflected in the words of VUDU’s Spaan. When Streaming Media asks, “Is 3D streaming video the wave of the future or just a novelty?” she replies, “We are committed to offering our consumers [a] choice in how they want to view their entertainment content. As long as 3D content is being produced, we plan to offer that content to our customers.”
Act 4: Alternative Endings
A good play has a strong plot, solid players, and a well-dressed stage. When it comes to 3D streaming media, we have seen that, although the plot is uncertain, the players are competent, and the stage is well-equipped and ready for a performance.
As for the ending of this play, “To 3D or Not to 3D,” like the DVD release of a modern Hollywood blockbuster, it is open to alternative endings.
The Happy Ending: The adventurous content producers elect to create material that can be seen and works in both 3D and 2D. In doing so, they cover all of their bases and futureproof their content. If 3D proves to be a winner, the producer is able to capitalize on it. But if it’s a flash in the pan, they always have their 2D version available for streaming.
The Tragic Ending: Content producers create 2D-only content — and 3D becomes the de facto streaming standard. Or producers create material specifically for 3D, and the format is a bust. Either way, they are stuck with content that no one is viewing.
The Farcical Ending: Content producers create programming for both 2D and 3D, but they do so in such a way that works badly in both. For instance, their videos use lots of in-and-out zooms meant to spotlight 3D effects. In 3D, the effects look cheesy. In 2D, they just induce motion sickness.
Act 5: The Moral
Every good play has a moral, and the moral of “To 3D or Not to 3D” is this: 3D effects are merely tools that can be used to enhance storytelling. So when it comes to deciding whether to 3D or not to 3D, it is the story that should decide the answer, whether for iPads, laptops, desktops, internet-connected TVs, or movie screens.
This article first appeared in the October/November 2011 issue of Streaming Media under the title “To 3D or Not to 3D?”