Canadian tech removes major obstacle to 3D in your living room

If you’re going to compete in the 3D TV market, associating yourself with Avatar can’t hurt.

Richard LaBerge and Montreal-based Sensio Technologies Inc. can claim that worthy accomplishment after providing the 3D encoding for Ubisoft’s Avatar video game.

Gamers on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PCs can enjoy the stereoscopic content of Avatar, which built the most successful box-office movie in history on the foundation of an immersive 3D experience. 

The spectacular 3D effects also won the film three Academy Awards – visual effects, art direction, and cinematography – at Sunday’s Hollywood gala. Director James Cameron waited for years before realizing his vision, insisting on technology that would make an alien world inhabited by blue natives and flying beasts believable.

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Now Cameron will be waiting again, according to LaBerge, chief marketing officer at Sensio. For now, Cameron will be releasing the DVD and Blu-Ray versions of Avatar in 2D only, waiting until 3D TV sets have a greater foothold in the market to release a 3D version of the film.

“They’re not going to release it in red and blue, that’s for sure,” LaBerge says, referring to an old-school method of achieving a low-grade 3D effects via conventional TV. “They’ll be waiting until 2011 for the release.”

Cameron isn’t the only one to express skepticism over the adoption of 3D TV sets in the market. A report released by Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. earlier this month predicts 3D TV will remain a niche market because of the expensive home entertainment system upgrades required, and the inconvenience of wearing 3D glasses. That has some Canadian firms betting that 3D content will be more successful on other screens – both large and small.

Imax Corp., which is co-headquartered in Mississauga, Ont. and New York, has more 3D films than 2D films coming to its (really) big screen in 2010. Toronto-based Spatial View Inc. is betting iPhone users will want 3D content, and is releasing a case and version of the App Store that sells exclusively 3D content.

But Sensio is betting consumers will adorn 3D glasses, and has a distribution technology that can solve some of the hardware upgrade pain.

3D couch surfing experience

“We take the left and right eye and combine them into one single stream that takes the same bandwidth as a 2D stream,” LaBerge explains. “By combining two images into one frame, you’d usually lose half the resolution. But our technology is able to provide digitally lossless compression.”

Sensio’s encoding technology solves half of the technology problem. Right now, if you wanted to watch a 3D Blu-Ray, you’d need a compatible Blu-Ray player, new HDMI v1.4 cables, a 3D-capable TV, and also an upgrade to any A/V receiver you use. But Sensio’s technology works with a legacy Blu-Ray player, so you just need to upgrade your TV set.

That solves one problem put forward by analyst Fernando Elizalde in Gartner’s March 2 report on 3D TV.

“The added value proposition of 3D seems at the moment is not nearly enough to persuade the millions of consumers who upgraded to high-definition TVs in the last three years to start upgrading again soon,” Elizalde writes. “3D TV will likely garner a core of early enthusiastic users but remain a niche product for the next five years.”

Sensio is so confident enough 3D TV will take off that it’s trying to position itself as the standard adopted by the industry. That means that if any video were to be encoded in 3D, it would use Sensio’s patented process.

Its distribution technology is the only one that’s been tested with live sports broadcasts so far, LaBerge says. It was used by ESPN to broadcast an event to theatres last September. The encoding format is also compatible with DVDs, which still out-sell Blu-Rays at a ratio of 10 to one.

“I think 3D will be more widespread than it is today, because the technology will evolve to make adoption easier,” he says. “If it stays as it is today, then no, it will stay as a niche product.”

The big screen bet

When Avatar brought in $200 million in box office revenue from 3D Imax screenings alone, it cemented the presentation as something you could put your money on. That’s exactly what Imax is doing now, with its 2010 release lineup heavily weighted in favour of 3D films — six out of eight major releases.

Those include the just-released Alice in Wonderland, several children’s animated films, and the anticipated sci-fi sequel Tron Legacy to end the year. The new releases from Hollywood studios are possible thanks to new digital Imax projectors installed in theatres across North America, says Jackson Meyers, media relations spokesperson for Imax.

“We’ve been in the 3D business longer than anyone else,” he says. “We’ve maintained the goal of using 3D to transport people to places they could only dream of going before.”

With digital projectors, Hollywood studios are saved the costly process of converting a film into an Imax reel. The change has also meant a boost in adoption rate at theatres across the continent. Imax had its first 3D capable theatre in the early 1980s, but it has quickly grown to over 200 theatres worldwide over the last two years.

It’s catching on as a revenue-booster, Meyers says. Theatres can charge extra for a 3D movie and still sell it out.

“People will always seek a premium experience for a movie,” he says.

Imax’s bet has worked out well enough on the big screen, so it’s expanding into the TV market as well. On Jan 5 it announced plans to launch a 3D TV network in the U.S. with Discovery Communications and Sony Corp. as equal partners. That launch is slated for 2011.

3D in your pocket?

Want 3D content on your phone? There’s an app for that – and if Spatial View has its way, there will soon be an entire mobile storefront dedicated to apps for 3D content.

The Toronto-based developer is planning to launch a case with a special screen, and an app that will allow Apple iPhone and iPod Touch users to view 3D content. It will be available in a 3D apps store supported by the iTunes backend, all slated for launch around the end of June.

Mobile devices and computers are better channels for 3D content than TV, says Spatial View CEO Beat Raemy.

“We think it’s going to be a while before you see broad adoption there, we don’t believe the glasses are here to stay,” he says. “People aren’t just going to throw out their HD TVs.”

The iPhone content will be licenced from sources including Hollywood studios and comic book labels.

An existing 3D case for the iPhone will soon be replaced by one less expensive and that works in both landscape and portrait mode, Raemy adds.

Spatial View also sells the Wazabee 3DeeFlector, a removable screen overlay that allows for glasses-free, or auto-stereoscopic, 3D viewing on a 13.3″ notebook.

In addition to its iPhone play, the Toronto firm is also betting that auto-stereoscopic will be the future of 3D TV.  It is looking to provide software that will allow other companies to develop 3D content, and convert existing content into auto-stereoscopic 3D. That means content can be created with using multiple cameras to shoot.

“If you shoot with a stereo camera, you have a left view and a right view,” Raemy says. “We can create the other views in between.”

3D horizon not yet in focus

Despite the enthusiasm for 3D content whipped up by Avatar and a bevy of products unveiled by manufacturers at the Consumer Electronics Show is Las Vegas, 3D content’s path to your eyeballs is still unclear. 

But more mainstream 3D content will be created over the next couple of years.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup will be shot and broadcast in 3D by Sony. The BBC also plans to broadcast the 2012 Olympic Games in 3D. The number of 3D films will continue to rise, with studios such as Walt Disney’s Pixar committing to produce all future content in 3D.

Content like that could help 3D TV avoid becoming “a failed precursor to virtual reality entertainment services,” as Gartner’s report puts it.

Also critical will be the agreement on a 3D content standard. If the industry was fragmented into different 3D formats that required different hardware, it could delay the adoption of 3D the same way Sony’s Blu-Ray and Toshiba’s HD-DVD format battle delayed adoption of HD.

That’s where Sensio comes in. It has a patent in the U.S. that covers “all spatial compression techniques.”

“We have been pushing to become a standard, or to become the de facto format adopted,” LaBerge says. “We do give out the highest quality of 3D.”

In that effort, the link with Avatar can’t hurt.

Brian Jackson considers his home theatre system 3D capable because he owns a pair of red-blue glasses. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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