3D: The Next Big Thing or the Wild (Wild?) West

Quality assurance will determine the course

year 3D goes mainstream. Given all the hype, you would think that 3D’s success was a done deal — a plug-and-play technology ready to be mass produced and consumed.

But take a closer look at the hype machine and you’ll see some serious shortcomings. The 3D demo reels from television manufacturers seemed to display the same content from the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show four months ago. Let’s face the facts: there just isn’t much high quality 3D content in the marketplace right now.

Only a handful 3D production houses in Hollywood — like 3ality –are producing high quality 3D content. The first 3D HDTV to garner mainstream notice only debuted at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in 2009, less than a year and a half ago.

Most experts didn’t expect 3D would come so far so fast. After all, not long ago, entertainment industry insiders saw 3D as a difficult and expensive technology with a bad track record. (Just think back to the first wave of pulpy 3D sci-fi and horror B-movies from the 50s if you need a reminder.)

This stigma limited the pool of content creators willing to work in 3D. Visionaries and technophiles may have enjoyed it — but not the mainstream movie-going public. Then James Cameron worked his magic, Avatar became the highest grossing movie ever, and here we are.

If you attended NAB this year, you might think that shooting 3D footage is as simple as shooting in 2D. All you need is a 3D camera, right?

Not exactly.

While Studentfilmmakers.com sponsored a 3D Camera Rig Raffle Drawing, the raffle failed to mention that the winner would need to purchase two genlocked cameras at least $5,000 a pop in order to capture 3D footage — and other equipment. Perhaps the raffle was a bit misleading, but at the least it was a step towards getting the filmmaking community excited about 3D filmmaking.

The biggest problem is that there are no guidelines or specifications on how to shoot 3D footage. There’s no standardized workflow, no best practices documentation, in existence as of today. With the lack of 3D content out there, many people will try to shoot 3D — but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to get their content to the market since there are no standards governing the industry.

“There is no quality control and there should be,” says Steve Schklair, Founder and CEO of 3ality Digital Systems, the 3D film and broadcast pioneer responsible for U2 3D and live 3D broadcasts of the NHL and NFL. Schklair explains that content distributors are hiring inexperienced 3D tech production houses — who lack even 2D filmmaking experience — to develop 3D content for demonstration and testing purposes. Unsurprisingly, the content these film amateurs produce has disappointed and turned some content distributors off from 3D.

Poor quality 3D content is certainly a threat. Since 3D is generating so much buzz, there is a real risk that technology entrepreneurs with access to 3D equipment — but lacking filmmaking experience — will create poor 3D content and turn off the market. Ingenuity and excitement can push the acceptance of new technologies, but 3D is not like other “new media.” It is not as simple to use as Facebook or Twitter. In fact, poorly executed 3D can induce headaches, nausea, dizziness, and even epilepsy or a stroke particularly for 3D TV viewers. If people’s first exposure to 3D entertainment makes them sick — or if the first media coverage they see is about physical side effects of 3D — the 3D entertainment industry will suffer a major setback.

However, efforts are being made to educate the film community. Schklair is helping his alma mater, USC Film School, with its programs, and his company 3ality is offering “3D IQ” classes to the filmmaking community at their headquarters in Burbank, CA. Other companies, such as BluFocus, who is a quality assurance facility defining standards and guidelines to ensure quality products for the movie studio’s 3D Blu-Ray discs, are creating a task force to popularize 3D content “best practices.” Hopefully these attempts to share information will continue to spread.

Since it is likely that poor 3D content will be hitting the streets in the months to come, the biggest challenge to keeping up and building on Avatar’s positive momentum is quality control—but without industry standards and best practices, such quality control isn’t likely. Thankfully, at the moment, 3D has a small audience, if only because so few of us have 3D TV sets. But with IP TVs, 3D-enabled laptop displays, and other new technologies rapidly being introduced to the marketplace, this may change sooner than we think. One thing is for sure, 3D could turn from the next big thing to some what of a joke if the 3D industry stays a lawless frontier without standards, best practices, and quality control.