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posted by - Tuesday, 19 January 2010
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Panasonic_3d_camera_PIC1-265Being the gear-head tech nerd that I am, I never thought it possible for me to overload on crepundia electronica (aka tech toys), until I found myself wandering through the 100+ booths at CES devoted to iPhone accessories. It hit me that CES really differs from “pro” technology shows such as NAB or IBC in its focus on marketing: trends, positioning, and hype. That’s not to say that this is a bad thing – a lot of what was shown at CES will soon come to market in a big way, and will directly influence how many of us conduct business or spend our leisure time.

Many have reported that this CES was all about 3D. I would say it was more about profitable 3D. Manufacturers have been showing 3D tech at trade shows for years, but, for the most part, the technology hasn’t changed very much. So, why is 2010 poised to become the “Year of 3D”? Because now there is a way for manufacturers to make money off of it. And this should be a good thing for all of us.

First let’s look at the success of Avatar. As I write this, Avatar is the #2 worldwide grossing motion picture of all time and well on the way to becoming #1. But in actual number of tickets sold, it is only something like #30. What’s the difference? Most people are paying a premium to see Avatar in 3D, Digital 3D, and even IMAX 3D – sometimes spending 250% over the ticket price of a 2D showing. This increased profitability is something that would make anyone stand up and notice, but that’s not the real reason the big manufacturers are mad about 3D. Manufacturers care about selling stuff – new 3D TVs, DVD players, camcorders, still cameras. Obviously you don’t have to buy all this, but they certainly wouldn’t stop you if you did.

Back when color was added to television, engineers jumped through hoops to make the signal still compatible with B&W sets (and forever saddled us with the twisted evil that is drop frame timecode). But every television maker started hawking their latest/greatest color sets, and networks promoted their shows as being broadcast “in living color.” Anyone remember why stereo was added to televisions in the mid-eighties? It was so that NBC could show a little peacock wearing headphones before every show, and Sony, Panasonic, et al could offer TVs with stereo speakers for 10% more than their mono models. Now that so many people already have large flat screen TVs—many of whom went from SD to 720p to 1080p to 120hz or 240hz refresh—what can the manufacturers add to get us to buy new TVs to replace what are otherwise really nice ones already hanging in our living rooms? That’s why 3D is such a big deal, and that’s the commerce that defines the Consumer Electronics Show.

What’s it mean for us production professionals? It means that we’re all going to have to start learning about interocculars, beamsplitters and convergence. It also means that if the manufacturers are really going to bring 3D to the mainstream they’re going to have to find the proverbial Better Way™, or at least the easier way, because most productions do not have the time, money or inclination to deal with the current complications that accompany 3D imaging technology. Some companies such as Element Technica and 3ality are refining the classic 3D rigs with modern technology, and soon there will be gear that is “good enough” to get productions most of the way there. At least there was something from both Sony and Panasonic on that front at CES; Sony has a project with a big camera with two sensors through a single B4 2/3” lens, and Panasonic has a smaller camera with a pair of 1/3” chips and what look like a set of binoculars on the front. There were some other tricks going on at other booths and in private suites – we’ll see which of them ever make it to market, or even survive up to NAB in April. But, in any case, we have some interesting systems to look forward to.

Me, I’m just glad not to be in the iPhone accessory business.

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