Winter technology: 3D Blu-ray


Will 3D save the Blu-ray format?

That's the optimistic forecast among home video executives -- and the impetus for what has become an aggressive ramp-up to create the necessary tools for 3D-enabled Blu-ray discs.

"Many people believe 3D is going to get Blu-ray a renewed life in the market," says Ahmad Ouri, head of strategy, technology and marketing at Technicolor. "There are mixed reports about how successful Blu-ray has been. 3D is one feature that is definitely going to differentiate Blu-ray from conventional DVD."

With 3D hits like "Avatar" priming consumers to want to replicate the theatrical experience in the home, industry momentum behind the format could not be stronger.

Add to that the announcement in late 2009 of a 3D Blu-ray technical specification by the Blu-ray Disc Assn. Makers of 3D Blu-ray players and discs now share consistent underlying technology, enabling compatibility between products and sidestepping the potential for a format war.

That convergence has lit a fire under the key suppliers readying to provide authoring, encoding and related services for the packaged media that will be needed to entice consumers.

"What was holding everyone up was the standard," says Jim Houston, vp technology and engineering at Colorworks, Sony Pictures' new post facility, which offers a 3D mastering suite. "There was no consistent platform on which to deliver the material. With a standard, there will be a race to get it done."

At last month's Consumer Electronics Show, several 3D-capable Blu-ray players were introduced. Many are expected to arrive in the market starting in the second quarter, from such manufacturers as Panasonic and Sony, which also is planning to offer support in its PlayStation 3 players.

"There is a fair amount of excitement -- it's getting pumped before the game," says Greg Gewickey, vp technology strategy at Deluxe Digital Studios. "A lot of people realize there is going to be a lot of work and uncertainties, but those kinds of challenges are exciting to the engineering community."

Such companies as Sony, Deluxe and Technicolor -- all of which are BDA members -- already are far along in their plans, which include third-party tools and in some cases development of their own techniques.

Deluxe has been working overtime to update its tools to conform to 3D Blu-ray standards. "We have been active in doing that and talking with our studio partners about their expectations," Gewickey says.

Among the first 3D Blu-ray titles expected to reach the market are DreamWorks Animation's "Monsters vs. Aliens," Sony's "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" and Disney's "A Christmas Carol."

Sony's digital authoring center is planning for 3D Blu-rays to be released in early to midsummer, depending on manufacturers' schedules. "We have been doing significant testing with (Sony) Tokyo on encoding equipment as well as the authoring toolsets," says Tony Beswick, senior vp technical operations at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

"We're seeing the possibility of bundled product that might be incorporated with consumer electronics equipment," he adds. "Then the bigger push will be toward the end of 2010."

Technicolor is working closely with the R&D arm of its parent company Thomson to develop tools it needs to be competitive.

"3D adds a lot of complexity," Ouri says. "For instance, it is very important to place subtitles in areas of the frame where content doesn't block them. We are developing tools that automatically analyze each frame and different depth maps and automatically recommend where subtitles will be placed. We are also working on a real-time preview tool to see these decisions as well as to tweak them."

Jeff McDermott, vp R&D at Deluxe Digital, says the company is rethinking how to present standard Blu-ray features with 3D elements.

"For instance, we could create a storefront and we can do a fly-around or flow-through," McDermott says. "Not just a CGI-created viewing experience, but a true depth-related viewing experience. It could be part of a menu design, game development or standalone bonus content.

"That is a fairly advanced example," he adds. "We are not sure how much people will push for that in the first year."

Some industry talk has centered on the potential need for a separate master for a 3D Blu-ray (versus a theatrical release) in order to create comfortable depth for the different screen sizes and viewing distances.

Colorworks' Houston views the notion of a separate master as a creative decision, not a necessity. "Any 3D movie that is transferred correctly will look fine (on a TV)," he says. "But there is the possibility that you will want to enhance the parallax for the home viewer with a smaller display."

Another factor insiders are examining is the time required to create 3D Blu-ray.

Beswick points out that in the Blu-ray format's debut year, it often took 20-30 days to author a title.

"Now we can author a title in days," he says, but the scenario could repeat itself with 3D. "Just the sheer fact of having to deal with the 3D subtitles, added value features, layers on the graphic overlays, menu design and the authoring and the encoding adds time to the project."

Companies are building capacity to handle the workload.

"We have a Blu-ray authoring group already, so we can scale and shift our resources," Technicolor's Ouri says. "If we get more 3D titles, it is likely these will take the capacity that we would normally use for a 2D Blu-ray title. We also have an operation in India that does authoring for Blu-ray that could take some of the 2D work that we would normally do in Burbank."

Most companies believe there could be some growing pains in the process.

"As with anything new, there will be a ramping up period this year," Beswick says. "In the first half of the calendar year there will be some capability constraints, but as it continues throughout the year, it will grow."

But the result of widespread 3D Blu-ray adoption would be a boon to the industry, which is still reeling from the decline of DVD sales.

"The excitement is about scaling 3D," Ouri says. "The problem theatrically is the number of 3D-ready screens, so the reach to the consumer has been extremely limited. Blu-ray is going to be one way that all consumers will be exposed to 3D."