2011 has been a year of head scratching and worrying times for the 3D entertainment industry. Sales of 3D TV sets have being sluggish; the popularity of 3D movies has declined and there have been surprises all round that 3D gaming has not proven to be as popular as expected. However, there have been a series of positive headlines recently suggesting the industry can end 2011 with an optimistic outlook for 2012.
Despite endless reports in the mainstream media claiming 3D cinema is over, highlighting the decline in 3D box office sales, the last few months have seen a reverse in the downturn. 2D to 3D conversion has dramatically improved and big name directors are starting to leverage 3D film-making in ever increasingly powerful ways. Although the ratio between 2D and 3D ticket sales has indeed narrowed since the post Avatar honeymoon, 3D versions of movies are still performing better than their 2D equivalents, surprising when considering the spat of poor conversions released to an ever increasingly wary public.
In 2010, 25 3D films were released. By the end of this year 39, 3D films will have been released.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon, directed by Michael Bay (originally a 3D cynic) re-captured some of the box office success of Avatar 3D. Half converted, half native, Bay’s futuristic 3D sequel claimed an approximate 70/30 ratio of box office sales in 3D’s favour. Bay even went on a personal mission to persuade cinema exhibitors to increase the brightness of their projectors (to save costs, cinema exhibitors often reduce the luminance of the projectors. Many movie goers have complained about the dim viewing experience of watching a 3D movie thanks to the glasses so low luminance can be even more of a problem for 3D).
More recently, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo has been described by many as the best 3D movie ever produced. Audiences have responded well to the Taxi director’s use of the 3D format which breaks away from Cameron’s convention of using the screen as a window to a new world (positive parallax).
The opening tracking shot, which plunges from the Parisian sky along the railroad platforms and finally to the station clock, sets the precedent for a well-considered 3D movie that few would deny, is better than the 2D version.
"I think what Marty's done is push 3D around a corner and given a gimmick a huge amount of heart and potential," said Sir Ben Kingsley, one of the film's stars.
Before the release of Hugo, Steven Spielberg’s motion capture 3D film The Adventures of TinTin was also praised for its intelligent deployment of 3D. It performed very strongly in Europe and is expected to replicate the success in North America when it is released on December 21st.
Films like Hugo, TinTin and Transformers 3 mark the start of a string of high profile 3D movies to launch next year by established directors. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus will open in June 2012 and is expected to follow in Scorsese’s footsteps of extending the possibilities of 3D filmmaking. The Alien director has even echoed James Cameron saying he will never shoot in 2D again.
Other 3D films to be released in 2012 expected to attract a lot of attention include Disney’s John Carter 3D (March), Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit (released December 2012), James Cameron’s Avatar 2 (December) Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby 3D (December) and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (July). A 40 minute preview of Andrew Adamson’s up-coming Cirque Du Soleil movie was presented by Vince Pace and James Cameron during IBC in Amsterdam and simply wowed audiences, even the 3D cynics.
UK cinema chain Cineworld has recently seen its share price increase thanks to an expected growth in 3D film admissions. Referring to Evolution Securities buy note on Cineworld, Evolution analyst Nigel Parson said “We expect 3D admissions to remain stable at around 20%-25% of admissions but these admissions yield a 30% ticket premium. Good business.”
His comment about very low yields may surprise people but if 3D films can generate a return on investment at such low ratios then this can only be good news.
2012 could also be the year of the back catalogue 2D to 3D conversion re-release thanks to the massive success of this year’s converted The Lion King 3D. Movie classics such as Top Gun, Titanic, Star Wars, Finding Nemo and possibly Lord of the Rings, Jurassic Park and Inception are all set to be given a 3D makeover. No doubt the industry will be watching audience reaction nervously, hoping the disastrous conversion flurry post Avatar is not repeated.
So does 3D in the home have an equally bright future? Well there has been positive 3D news here too. Earlier in the year, consultancy firm Futuresource published a report suggesting that half of UK homes will own a 3D TV set by 2015. However, Futuresource also acknowledged that 3D TVs will be purchased mainly by default rather than as part of a conscious decision to ‘go 3D’.
In the same report, the consultancy states that as of now, there are approximately 55 3D channels and demo channels and at least another 35 VoD (Video on demand) services offering 3D movie content. Futuresource Consulting’s Market Analyst, Fiona Hoy, expects that to rise by 15-20 channels and/or 3D VoD service. China’s State Administration of Radio, Film & Television had previously called for 10 3D channels to be launched in the People’s Republic by 2015.
Thanks to over-supply, prices for 3D TV sets have dropped to an all-time low with one able to pick up a 3D TV for less than £500.
3D technology has improved too. Traditionally expensive, passive 3D TV sets have plummeted in price, thanks in part to film-patterned retarder technology introduced to the market by LG. Consumers no longer need to spend £50 for each pair of 3D glasses as the new passive 3D TV sets often include several pairs of cheap, flicker free lightweight 3D glasses allowing for families and friends to enjoy 3D programming together. Passive 3D TV sets more closely replicate the 3D cinema experience without the flicker artefact of active 3D TV systems (discouraging many to buy) although current passive 3D technology halves the on-screen resolution. However, next year may see the launch of full resolution passive displays starting with computer monitors, which will deliver the next quality level of 3D (although initial prices are expected to be high).
The active 3D TV industry has also got its act together as Panasonic, XpanD, Sony and Samsung have joined forces to launch a universal 3D full HD active glasses standard meaning XPanD active 3D glasses will be compatible with each manufacturer’s 3D displays. The ‘Full HD 3D Glasses Initiative’ was released in September 2011. Universal glasses with the new IR / RF protocols will be made available in 2012, and are targeted to be backward compatible with 2011 3D active TVs.
Talking of standards, The DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting body) recently allied with the 3D@Home Consortium to encourage the development of standards for 3D TV. The move will also ensure that knowledge about 3D viewing is shared and that the bodies’ work is complementary, further facilitating the growth of 3D television innovation throughout 2012 and beyond.
3D content may still be thin on the ground but things are improving fast. 3D lifestyle channel HIGH TV 3D has expanded rapidly since its launch in April this year when it signed a 4 million Euro deal with Korea Telecom along with its sister channel FASHION ONE. In October, HIGH TV 3D launched in Norway on the CANAL DIGITAL platform and before that, HIGH TV 3D launched on cable television operator UPC in Romania. It recently also launched in Denmark.
In the UK, Sky 3D is firmly committed to the format, pushing more money into original 3D programming. Over the next few months, the UK’s only 3D channel will premier quality 3D productions such as Kew 3D, Bachelor King 3D, Beautiful Freaks 3D, Safari 3D and The Secret Life of the Rainforest 3D. Amsterdam based distributor Off the Fence, has just closed its first 3D deal with Universal Full Band Media out of their Asia office in Singapore for Universal Full Band Media's new 3D channel in China where two 3D channels will launch in January alone. Other distribution companies continue to achieve success with their growing 3D libraries including Electric Sky, Global Media Consult and LOG MEDIA.
The London 2012 Olympics will be captured and broadcast live around the globe in 3D. The Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) are capturing the event in 3D due to the requests of the broadcast rights holders rather than as part of an option that ‘might be picked up’ by the rights holders. In September, OBS Chief Executive Manolo Romero told 3D Focus he was surprised at how high the level of demand was.
Following on from the 3D coverage of the 125th Wimbledon Tennis Championships this year, Sony has committed to produce 3D coverage of the world famous tennis championships on a greater scale for at least the next three years.
On December 17th, the BBC will be broadcasting the finals of mega hit Strictly Come Dancing in 3D on its dedicated BBC HD channel and a network of digital cinemas. The BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, will be releasing three multi-million pound budget 3D productions in association with Evergreen Films, Reliance Pictures and CAMERON | PACE Group. Walking with Dinosaurs 3D will be distributed around the globe next year followed by Africa 3D and Life.
Even ITV Studios will be venturing into 3D production with a stereoscopic version of its hit series, River Monsters 3D. France Telecom’s Orange TV have just increased their 3D offering with a distribution deal with My Zen TV and CAMERON | PACE Group are planning to open a UK office to increase their market share in Europe, especially in 3D live sports capture. 3net, having revamped its consumer website and on-screen presentation, has significantly increased its output, airing 50 hours of original S3D content in December alone.
Despite persistent negative headlines about disappointing sales figures for the Nintendo 3DS (perhaps due to unrealistic sales forecasts), games industry trade website MVC yesterday reported that the glasses free 3D console is almost sold out in the UK.
With Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 both in the UK top ten, it seems that 3DS is proving very popular contrary to popular belief. It is also selling well in Japan although research has found that owners rarely use the 3D functionality after the first few weeks. However, what it does mean is that, in addition to the growing network of 3D TVs, there is a growing base of 3D capable displays in people’s homes capable of both 3D gaming and video playback. Today, Nintendo launched their software update to enable 3D video recording functionality.
3D technology is also set to improve throughout 2012. Digital 3D cinemas will exhibit more 3D presentations at higher frame rates, removing the annoying flicker inherent with 3D presentation. Avatar 2 and The Hobbit are two films being filmed at 48 frames per second. As the flicker problem is addressed in 2012, so will be the issue of dim images caused by 3D glasses. Real D has enjoyed success with its XLW Cinema System. The projection combination is capable of delivering up to 12 foot-lamberts of brightness, approximately 3 times the brightness of most commercial multiplexes.
For a brighter 3D experience at home, the new NVIDIA 3D Vision 2 glasses and the compatible Asus VG278H flat panel with LightBoost-certified desktop display are the "best 3D solutions for gamers on the market" according to T3 magazine. LightBoost technology makes the screen twice as bright as the original version. Gamers have often complained how the darkness of the screen can reduce the immersive experience of 3D gaming.
Whether 3D phones will be popular is anybody’s guess. This year saw the launch of the LG Optimus 3D which has not been the success expected by the Korean giant although Jon Peddie Research says 80 percent of smartphones will boast not just 3D screens, but 3D cameras in the next four years. Consumer 3D capture devices have got cheaper and cheaper. A range of 3D consumer camcorders have become available recently starting from as little as $100! Improvements have been made in glasses free 3D technology with companies like Toshiba and LG launching monitors that can track the viewer’s eyes to solve the sweet spot limitations of autostereo technology and SpatialView recently launched a low cost device to convert the iPhone 4 into a glasses free 3D handset. The company will also soon be launching the 3DeeScreen which will convert compatible laptops into glasses free 3D.
Finally, more good 3D news emerged yesterday as new evidence from The German University of Munich and the Austrian University of Salzburg suggests watching 3D TV does not increase the chance of triggering epileptic seizures.
So after a very difficult year for the 3D industry, 2011 is drawing to a close with some positive indicators that 3D may be around for the long haul this time. Many will hope 2012 will be a year that will deliver more answers than more questions.
While the recent positive news will be a welcome boost to the industry, it is important to stay realistic. Outside of the movie theatres, there is no proof that consumers will pay for or even want 3D entertainment in the home or on the move. 3D TV sales might be growing but that is not to say people will use the 3D functionality. As mentioned before, despite strong Nintendo 3DS sales, owners genuinely prefer to switch the 3D mode off so it is important to welcome the recent news with caution.
The 3D entertainment industry still has a high mountain to climb before the technology is embraced by the mainstream but at least the horizon is looking brighter than it did just a few months ago!
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