Technology

Quality warnings issued over 3DTV

Clash of the Titans
Image caption Hollywood epic Clash of the Titans was painstakingly converted into 3D frame-by-frame but the image quality received mixed reviews.

After years of trial and error, 3D finally hit the mainstream; at least as far as Hollywood was concerned.

Big box office hits like Toy Story 3, Avatar and Clash of the Titans suggest that cinema goers have an appetite for 3D and they're willing to pay a premium for it.

Now the TV industry is trying to catch up.

3DTV sets went on sale in UK department stores earlier this year, after sports network ESPN committed to broadcasting at least 25 of the World Cup games in 3D.

Despite poor first month sales figures - just 25,000 3DTV sets sold across Europe according to analysts GfK - industry pundits say 3D television is here to stay.

"3DTV is not going to have the same impact as the introduction of colour TV," declared Simon Murray, principal media analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media in a recent report.

"However, it is not a fad and it will prosper as a niche product," he added.

The average TV production has neither the time or the budget of a blockbuster movie. Filming in 3D requires both in large amounts, so the alternative is to film in traditional 2D and then convert it afterwards.

There are various ways of doing this.

Image caption All Samsung 3DTV's now come with TriDef as standard.

If money is no object, then a proprietry post-production software system - developed by large 3D production houses - is the way many film studios are heading.

One firm, Prime Focus, converted Clash of the Titans into 3D for Warner Brothers in less than eight weeks. It was an expensive, labour intensive process, involving almost 1500 staff said the firm, and the results received mixed reviews.

Budget 3D

But there is one option that has no financial cost.

TV manufacturer Samsung recently announced that it will be including automatic conversion software - TriDef, developed by DDD - in all of its new 3DTV sets, enabling viewers to instantly "upscale" standard live television into a 3D experience at the push of a button.

TriDef is already embedded in Samsung mobile handsets and Acer laptops.

This type of software has alarmed the film industry, with claims that the automated result is inferior to filming with specialist 3D cameras or using an expensive post-production process.

At a conference in May, Hollwood film director James Cameron - the man behind the animated 3D epic Avatar - warned the result of cheap conversion were "eye strain and headaches".

Panasonic refused to include the software in its 3D sets over quality concerns.

"'We don't think it's right to confuse consumers this early on with second-rate conversion technology,' Fabrice Estornel, product manager at Panasonic TV, told website Home Cinema Choice (HCC).

Chris Yewdall, chief executive of DDD, said the company is not trying to compete with big budget solutions.

"3D is just like any other market - you have good, better and best," he told BBC News.

"We offer a very specific feature aimed at the consumer to get them comfortable with the fact that it is possible to watch 3D at home. There's a cost and quality level associated with that."

Comparing the product with surround sound, Mr Yewdall added that the DDD solution offers an unlimited amount of content as any live TV programme can be split into 3D without adding time and expense to the production cycle.

"When you look at Clash of the Titans , it had a very aggressive schedule and cost of several million dollars. The average consumer doesn't have that. You just want it to work at the press of a button," added Mr Yewdall.

Colour coordination

Automated software tends to work on basic algorithms, said Graham Thomas, a broadcast expert at the BBC's research and development labs.

"They all work by using some simple tricks, which work most but not all of the time," he said.

One method is to automatically make the lower half of the picture appear to be at the front and the upper half behind, said Mr Thomas.

Others are programmed to move colours, such as making greens appear closer and blues further away, while DDD uses a combination of motion capture and colour to create the illusion of depth.

"Depending on the content, it will generally either work well or look weird," said Mr Thomas.

"I think the technology will improve but fundamentally it's difficult to get the depth without the cameras."

However there are some shots that even the 3D cameras cannot capture, he warned.

A tight zoom - onto a sports player on the other side of a pitch for example - proved impossible for stereo cameras used during a 3D experiment while filming the recent Six Nations rugby cup, said Mr Thomas.

"The pragmatic way is to do it in 2D and bring the person forward, pushing the crowd back (in post production)," he said.

"It works for a few seconds."

Turning Titan

Prime Focus used its own software, View-D, in the conversion of Clash of the Titans.

Each shot was manually traced out, or rotascoped, after discussions with a stereographer from the film crew - 3D's answer to the traditional director of photography role.

"There is nothing automated about View-D," said senior producer Matt Bristowe.

"Every single shot is essentially a visual FX shot. We had one artist per shot working for three to five days."

Mr Bristowe acknowledged the mixed reviews over the 3D quality, but claimed that the tight turnaround was to blame.

Image caption The 6 Nations rugby tournament has been filmed in 3D since 2008.

"We knew some shots didn't work as well as others, but it was down to time. What we've learned from all that is that we now estimate 16 - 20 weeks are needed to deliver a full feature."

Although post-conversion is bread and butter to Prime Focus, Mr Bristowe does not believe it can take the place of filming everything in 3D in the first place, not least because there are not the resources in place to keep up with demand.

"In the next 12 months we will see 50 plus features released in 3D. If every one was post-conversion, there's not enough facilities to deliver that much product."

However he also took a dim view of the automated software solution.

"I think if I'd gone out and spend £5000 on a 3DTV and I was seeing work processed through one of those, I'd feel short-changed," he said.

"They are gimmicky."

Chris Yewdall believes that that the automated approach has a place in the 'pyramid' of 3D conversion techniques.

"We see automatic conversion fitting in at the bottom of that period," he said.

"Real time conversion as a feature is intended to give the consumer comfort that they can watch live TV in 3D."

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