Chaos in stereovision land

Posted: 05.28.09

This is moment of great opportunity

I’ve been attending and speaking at stereovision conferences for the past year or so. As a matter of fact, I just spent three days in Paris at the Dimension3 Conference and Expo where there was a lot of great information shared by people actually trying to make stereovision work.

As it turns out I have a lot to say about the subject having worked in and with stereo for several decades. As I and others have reported there are conflicting proposed standards in the cinema, for the TV, the PC, and handheld devices. All four platforms have and/or will have stereovision capabilities (erroneously being marketed as “3D”, a throwback to silly movies of the fifties.)

House of Wax Poster
I won’t go into the litany of standards or their pros and cons; you can find that in the pages of our TechWatch reports. Rather I’d like to opine about what it all means, this abundance of proposed technologies for tricking your eyes, brain, and pocketbook into believing your seeing an image in space with depth qualities.

Of the dozen or so competing technologies for capture and display, and potentially, distribution (although that seems to be being left to existing infrastructures), no single one really provides a universal solution for a single platform let alone the four we have now. The lack of multiplatform compatibility isn’t the problem, because we don’t really have that now for flat images, movies are different than TV, which is different than handheld devices and PCs – we can (and do) live with that.

Without an accepted or sanctioned stereovision “standard” for any platform the various suppliers of proposed solutions, including standards bodies, will jockey for dominance hoping to become a de facto standard if not an agency blessed standard. De facto standards have worked well and often can get an industry moving faster than a standards body being ruled by committee. Microsoft and Intel are examples of the success of de facto standards in the PC industry, Technicolor, is an example in cinema, and ARM is in handhelds. All the others are pilot fish clinging to these sharks.

With no giant company to impose a de facto standard as we have in the PC industry, the cinema industry is being buffeted by three to six companies. Almost all of them have “wins” to point to that they say prove the value and significance of their solution – all of them are of course wrong, and the winner, when and if there is one, will be the one that satisfies the most requirements – which is seldom the most elegant or sophisticated solution – e.g., 24 fps sprockets in the cinema, ATSC TV in the US.

Tesla's Polyphase Alternating Current 500 horse power generator at in Westinghouse Exposition (Tesla Memorial Society of New York)

And as frustrating as that is for some, not the least of which are the hapless consumers, it is the moment in time when great opportunity exists. Think back to AC DC and voltage level wars in the early days of electricity distribution, or the battles over spectrumallocation in the developing days of TV, or for that matter internet organization and packet design.

And yet out of all those, and many other wars came either real (i.e., agency backed) or de facto standards that we have learned to life with. In some cases the standards have even worked out to be the desireable solutions. When those standards were finally established a few companies made fortunes, while others are forgotten. It’s the law of survival and what makes capitalism work.

Place your bets

So the time is now to place your bets. Who do you think will be the winner? Think back if you had been around and had bet on Westinghouse (instead of Edison Electric) at the turn of the century, or RCA just before WWII (instead of Columbia Broadcasting or Dumont), or Intel in 1970 (instead of Fairchild).

It may take some time for a winner to emerge, and just as it has happened in other media deployments, it may be regional winners, one for Europe, one for north America, one for Asia. The consumer, if given a choice, a visible comparative choice will of course be decider. If movies using technology A for stereovision are less comfortable or enjoyable than technology B, the box office will reflect that, all things (like quality of content) being equal. And maybe the cinema will simply adopt all as it does now with audio (notice at the end of the credits roll Dolby, DTS, SDDS, and THX are all listed.)Dumont brand

It may not be a unilateral surrender like we saw in the BD HD DVD wars, in some cases large capital equipment investments are being made by the studios and the exhibitors, and as long a they can get content for their solution they may live on. But in the case of the cinema there are such massive fortunes riding on this it’s unlikely two or solutions can coexist let alone survive – there will be casualties. The same is true for TV, which will most likely be the last platform to get a standard. The handheld platform could be first because autosereoscoptic represents a logical solution and provides a 3D display without hardware overhead. And next will be the PC although right now the two major competing solutions from Nvidia and IZ3D seem to be able to coexist.

The mistake I always make is to vote on the side of technology, and this probably isn’t going to be a technology driven solution. Place your bets, fortunes are going to be made in the next five years.