3D Video Primer: Part 2 

Why 3D, Why Now?

Three-dimensional still and video imaging has been around for a very long time, but in recent years, 3D has enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity. Film studios are busy pumping out 3D movies, every other television set released these days seems to be capable of displaying 3D content, and it is even possible to capture images in 3D yourself, using many of the latest digital still and video cameras.

But what is driving the current upsurge of 3D? Improvements in the technology, pressure from manufacturers who are desperate to create and monitize the next 'big thing' in consumer electronics, or consumers themselves? 

3D Video: Who's playing?

All of the major television manufacturers offer 3D-compatible TVs, and today's big 3D releases are available for purchase on Blu-ray, to watch in the home. After a long wait, there is now a standard for 3D video. Announced in 2011, AVCHD 2.0 includes support for 1080 60p and 50p, and high-definition 3D movies encoded using Multiview Video Coding (MVC). As far as 3D video creation is concerned, Panasonic and Sony are currently the only two companies that offer an 'end-to-end' 3D solution in both professional and consumer spheres, but in the consumer space they are also joined by JVC. 

As well as 3D display solutions, JVC currently markets two 3D camcorders, the twin-lens, twin-sensor GS-TD1B full HD 3D Everio, and the single-lens, single-sensor GZ-HM960BUS Full HD Everio, which can convert 2D footage into 3D in-camera. Like the GZ-HM960BUS, Panasonic's HDC-TM900K is a conventional single lens, single sensor 2D camcorder but when paired with an optional 3D conversion lens it can record 3D footage.

JVC's GS-TD1B full HD 3D Everio has twin lenses, twin sensors and an autostereo LCD screen. The Sony  HDR-TD10 is designed in the same way, and allows videographers to manually adjust the convergence of its two lenses for fine control over the 3D effect. 
 Panasonic takes a different approach in the HDC-TM900K, which is a conventional single-lens single-sensor camcorder which can produce 3D footage when paired with the optional VW CLT1 stereo adapter. Sony's 3D Bloggie pocket camcorder can produce 2D or 3D video and stills courtesy of its twin lens design. Like the Panasonic HDC-TM900K/VW CLT1 pairing, footage is captured on a single sensor, at correspondingly reduced resolution compared to 'true' twin-lens, twin-sensor designs. 

Sony debuted its HD 3D Camcorder, the Handycam HDR-TD10, earlier this year. The twin-lens, twin-sensor TD10 allows the user to switch between recording in 3D and 2D, and if you don't have a 3D-compatible TV or computer, footage shot in 3D can also be played back conventionally in 2D. Sony also markets the 3D 'Bloggie' compact video camera. Dual lenses provide 1920x1080 3D HD video and like the TD10, the Bloggie offers the option to record in 2D as well. 

The advantages of twin-lens, twin-sensor designs, like those shown above from JVC and Sony are primarily the ability to adjust the convergence of the two lenses (either manually or automatically), which is useful when shooting at close focussing distances, and low-light performance. With a single sensor per lens, there are many more pixels available to assemble the image, and in low light this means that downsampling (where the signals of neighboring photosites are combined to produce a cleaner, less noisy image) is more practical. 

Systems that use twin lenses but a single sensor cannot be adjusted for convergence (although this isn't a problem in most shooting situations) but more seriously, they must necessarily use a smaller area of that sensor to record each of the left/right channels, limiting the options for downsampling, and thus increasing the risk of noisy footage in low light. Naturally though, twin-lens single-sensor systems are potentially less bulky and - of course - less expensive. 

Still 3D Imaging

Stereography has been popular for more than a century, but until recently it was largely confined to the hobbyist sphere. Although 3D still imaging isn't being pushed as heavily as video by mainstream electronics manufacturers, an increasing number of cameras are being introduced which feature some kind of 3D functionality, either built-in or via special accessories. 

Several of Sony's current range of Cyber-shot compact cameras, including the recently-reviewed DSC-HX9 and DSC-TX10, feature a 3D capture mode, and the same is true of Panasonic's DMC-ZS10, FX78 and TS3. last autumn, Panasonic also announced three new interchangeable lenses for its LUMIX G series of cameras, including the world's first interchangeable 3D lens, the H-FT012.

The only company which currently offers a dedicated 3D still image camera is Fujifilm. The FinePix REAL 3D W3 features two lenses and two sensors. Fujifilm also markets a small range of dedicated accessories, including the FinePix REAL 3D V1 viewer, an 8-inch autostereo LCD display. 

Life in 3D

Manufacturers are clearly banking on the monetary potential of consumer-level 3D imaging, but stereoscopy, in many forms, has been around for over a century. Why the sudden interest in grabbing a new consumer demographic and putting 3D cameras into their hands? 

According to Dave Briganti, Senior Product Manager of Imaging at Panasonic, part of the answer is that various technologies are maturing at the same time, and coming together to make it easier for manufacturers to offer complete, affordable, 3D 'solutions'. Briganti mentions 3D televisions as a specific example: 'I think bringing this phenomenon into your living room has been what's driving this current trend. Television [reflects] what happens in mainstream America. I think the fact that 3D has become available in a TV in your home is really what's lead imaging manufacturers to develop these 3D products and technology.'

If you're shopping for a new television, the chances are that you'll come across a lot of models which boast '3D compatibility'. Although availability of 3D content is still fairly low, the number of channels that offer it is growing, and 3D movie releases are available on Blu-ray disc. Manufacturers are also hoping that the emergence of affordable, consumer-level 3D video cameras onto the market will increase the popularity of home 3D, too.

The logical next step from becoming a consumer of 3D content is becoming a creator. When it comes to 3D camcorders, Andy Bubala, Sony Electronic's Camcorder Business Director echoes Briganti's sentiments 'It used to be a five-figure minimum for this type of equipment, really only available to professionals and studios. Now, for $1,500 you can buy a video camcorder that shoots really high quality 3D, and has the option to shoot and playback in 2D.'

But will consumers accept a whole new learning curve? How easy will it be for people to adapt to a new way of capturing and viewing video? Most people can't remember a time when enthusiast amateurs didn't have access to video cameras. So in 20 years' time, is it possible that we won't be able to remember a time when we didn't have 3D video cameras?

'It's easy to make 3D, but hard to make it good'. So says Buzz Hays, Senior VP of Sony's 3D Technology Center, and respected stereographer. 'As a consumer, you want to be able to turn on the camera and get baby's first steps. You don't get two chances with that. So at Sony we had to take a lot of the professional experience we have in 3D filmmaking and translate that into an experience that works in a video camera where people shooting it don't have to think at all about what they're doing.'

Sony's TD10 3D camcorder uses two lenses, and two sensors - one for each lens. As illustrated in this image (simplified for illustration only), the convergence of the lenses can be adjusted either automatically or manually by the videographer, according to the distance of the subject. This doesn't make much difference at normal viewing distances, but can help a lot when shooting subjects at close quarters.

The experience that Hays is talking about is the experience of using Sony's latest HDR-TD10 3D HD camcorder. The TD10 captures high-definition 3D video using two lenses, mated to two sensors, and its innovative '3D ready' LCD screen shows 3D footage during capture and review, without the need for special glasses.

Some 3D camcorders use a single lens/sensor combination and split a 1920 x 1080 signal into two channels, thereby reducing 'true' resolution. The TD10's twin lens/sensor design maintains full HD in both left and right channels, mimicking the human vision system. By adjusting the amount of convergence between the two lenses, advanced videographers can take precise control over the look of their 3D footage. If they want to, amateurs – of the sort that Hays is talking about – can just leave those decisions to the camera.

Adoption Worries

Despite the pace of innovation, and the raft of new 3D products on the market, manufacturers aren't getting things all their own way. Panasonic's Dave Briganti accepts that consumers aren't adopting 3D as quickly as the industry had expected. There are many possible reasons for this (a global recession certainly doesn't help) but the most likely is that consumers tend to be a little cautious about jumping onto new technological bandwagons in case they turn out to be a fad. A similar, equally cautious purchasing pattern occurred when HDTVs first debuted on the market.

In fact, Buzz Hays at Sony believes that part of the answer to the thusfar relatively slow takeup of consumer 3D lies in the timing of the new technology, so soon after HDTV – the last 'big thing' in television. As Hays points out, a significant number of consumers have only recently, within the last three or four years, adopted HD technology on their home sets.

'For those people who've just bought an expensive TV that will last them for a while, they're not ready to turn around and invest again,' he explains. Going forward, however, 'Sony is now outfitting a significant majority of its newly manufactured TV with 3D capability, so regardless of whether people buy it for 3D purposes or not, [if you buy a new Sony TV now] you have a very good chance of ending up with something that's 3D capable.'

Sony's strategy is not unique. Dave Briganti at Panasonic similarly believes that the secret to consumer adoption of 3D partly lies in the way in which the technology is promoted to consumers. Panasonic's stragegy is simple: 'When we have a customer that wants to buy a 3D television, we try to bundle that with a camcorder or another 3D device that is compatible with the set.'

Meanwhile, Nick Dager, an analyst with the Gerson Lehrman Group as well and editor and publisher of Digital Cinema Report and IndieFilm3D thinks that the reasons 3D televisions, specifically, are not selling as well as their manufacturers had hoped are threefold. 'The cost [of the hardware], confusion about [whether or not people need] special glasses – as well as the cost of the glasses - and a serious lack of quality content'.

In Dager's view, it is the third reason that holds the key to 3D's long-term viability, and that as the amount of high-quality 3D broadcast content increases, so will the willingness of consumers to watch it.

With 3D TVs filling stores, more and more 3D-capable cameras and camcorders being released and more tha 40 3D movies projected for release in 2012, 3D is growing fast. But like a teenager experiencing growing pains, it hasn't quite reached maturity yet. If Hollywood can stop making 3D just to make 3D and find out where it really fits, and if electronics manufacturers can convince consumers that their home videos really need to be in 3D not 2D, then maybe, just maybe, the angry teenager will grow into a healthy adult.

Click here to read Part 1 of our 3D Video Primer 

Barnaby Britton is Editor of dpreview.com. Valentina Valentini is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. You can see more of her work at her website, www.valentinavalentini.com