Advanced Television

Is VR 3D all over again?

September 8, 2016

By Mark Ringwald

It’s the question that pops up among the never ending stream of news releases, press briefings, blogs and articles about the latest consumer technology. Is this new tech the next big thing or the next colossal bust? Inevitably, comparisons to the spectacular rise and fall of 3D TV are made, but are they valid? Have lessons been learned or are the same mistakes being made? With respect to the successors of 3D; 4K and Virtual Reality, the answer is a little of both. To determine what could possibly go wrong with these new technologies it is necessary to look at three big reasons why 3D failed to live up to consumer expectations.

When you think about it, seeing an object jump out of your screen is a pretty good technological feat. The only thing is that you have to wear a special pair of glasses to see 3D and right away the industry unfortunately came up with two competing standards, which ultimately lead to consumer confusion and pushback. One standard, Passive TV, required a specially treated glass on the TV set itself and the use of polarized glasses. The other standard, Active TV, relied on internal electronics and a pair of battery powered glasses. The passive sets were more expensive to build, but the glasses were cheap and the active sets were cheaper to manufacture but the glasses were expensive.

I believe active sets were a major fail for 3D. The cost of the glasses was excessive, upwards of $100 per pair. They were heavier and more uncomfortable to wear than passive glasses. The glasses constantly needed to be charged or the batteries replaced. If while wearing the glasses you looked away, they began to flicker, and as people suddenly started using phones and tablets as second screens, consumers found they couldn’t wear the glasses and look at their iPads. In stores the glasses were either stolen, broken or not working, so potential consumers couldn’t even experience 3D if they wanted to.

Active sets initially provided a better, brighter picture than passive sets. Early reviews of 3D TVs reinforced this opinion and a majority of 3D TVs on showroom floors were Active sets. However, the improved brightness of sets over time made passive sets ultimately superior. Polarized glasses were cheap to buy and easy to wear and allowed consumers to look at their phones or tablets. Unfortunately, by this time, the die had been cast.

Yet even if consumers went home with a brand new 3D TV, they still needed something to watch.

When 3D TV sets first hit the market, there was little available content. I should know, at 3net I was tasked with finding enough 3D content to launch a network. There were a few theatrical releases and (luckily) a fair number of 3D non-fiction films created for IMAX science and museum theaters.

Beyond movies, 3D needed regular television programming to sustain the format. 3D is not easy to produce. You can easily create headache inducing, mind confusing 3D or barely perceptible 3D. In the early days there was plenty of bad 3D TV content available. Yet as time went on there was also a lot of good and even great 3D television content being produced, but most of the programs were non-fiction documentaries, travel shows, cartoons and such. What you didn’t see was network primetime programming in 3D. Consumers had only a couple of cable networks, 3D blu-rays and a few titles offered on early OTT (Over-The-Top) providers like the PlayStation network to choose 3D content from.

What was needed was 3D so compelling, so amazing that you couldn’t think of watching it in any other format than 3D. Some content like Hugo and Life of Pi fit the bill, but it wasn’t enough. The promise of 3D as an art form takes artists (directors, cinematographers) to create works that use 3D to present the world and stories in unique and imaginative ways. It takes time to create a 3D cinematic language and it turns out that 3D TV, as a format, had very little time.

The seeds for 3D’s failure were planted at the beginning. There was a lot of talk early on that all TV programming would be in 3D. Director, James Cameron, whose mega-hit, “Avatar” marked the beginning rise of 3D as a major factor in theatrical 3D production, contributed to the perception by saying, “It’s absolutely inevitable that entertainment will be 3D, it’ll all be 3D eventually.” In hindsight 3D TV should have been marketed as an enhancement of your TV. Great for watching that special movie or spectacular documentary, not for everything.

Secondly, as people started to complain about the 3D glasses, the prognosticators were only too quick to predict that glasses free 3D was just around the corner and so consumers, naturally, waited. The large TV manufacturers never found a suitable glasses free solution they felt confident in bringing to market. Instead they decided to focus on the Next Big Thing: 4K TV.

Is 4K the Next 3D?
4K shares this with 3D: in both cases TV manufacturers are hoping that consumers will upgrade their TVs by purchasing these newer, “better” models. This format also inherits the three same pitfalls that eventually saw the demise of 3D. Only time will tell if 4K will become the next 3D, but time may be on 4K’s side.

Right off the bat, 4K TV’s had a problem with the name; 4K or Ultra High Definition (UHD) or Quad Full HD (QFHD). The industry seems to have settled on 4K UHD. At four times the resolution the picture is much more detailed. The picture quality can be so good that a scene can almost look like it is in 3D. I should mention here that, ironically, 3D looks even better in 4K, the brighter picture and increased resolution means that 3D is easier to watch and experiences less problems, like ghosting.

To those early adopters who have already bought a 4K UHD set, congratulations, because your set is probably obsolete. Thanks again to quickly evolving technology, TV manufacturers are now offering 4K UHD HDR or High Dynamic Range. Besides adding more letters and asking consumers to remember some kind of crypto password, HDR is confusing in that it isn’t at all the same as the HDR function many people have on their cell phone or digital cameras. Adding to the mess is that there are two competing formats of HDR, which is inevitable, because the electronic industry just can’t help themselves.

HDR does provide a marked improvement to the television picture, adding a depth of color and a range of dark to light that gives the viewer a much truer vision of the scene, closer to what you see with your eyes. HDR can provide bright reds that don’t bloom, more accurate skin colors, windows and skies that aren’t overexposed and details within the shadows. HDR relies on a new color standard called Rec 2020 that was adopted along with the specifications for UHD. The problem was that the early 4K TV’s could not meet those specs and even today are not yet all the way there.

What is a consumer supposed to do? Will they know enough to ask if the TV is HDR compatible? Will the fact that it is HDR10 or Dolby Vision (the two HDR formats) make a difference? Will the technology become a barrier instead of an incentive? If the consumer ventures into a big box store and can find a sales associate, will they ask (like they did with 3D) what is there to watch in 4K?

There’s not a learning curve in creating 4K UHD content, but there is a curve in providing it. Theatrical movies today are shot on digital cameras that are already shooting in 4K or greater, but for TV shows, dramas, comedies, documentaries, etc. there is a not insignificant added cost to shooting and editing and finishing in 4K UHD HDR.

There is also another technical specification not widely discussed; high frame rates or HFR. To really take advantage of the increased resolution and HDR color space, HFR presents a crisper, brighter more detailed true-to-life picture. But for film purists, anything other than 24fps is heresy. Frame rates of 60 or even 120 add exponentially to the cost of production, so producers might not make the investment and consumers will miss out on another of 4K’s big selling points.

Then there is the problem of where to see 4K? Currently it’s only available via OTT (Netflix, Amazon and others), a channel on DIRECTV and some cable providers. It is most often only available at a premium price. If you want to watch a 4K blu-ray, you’ll need to by a new 4K compatible blu-ray player.

This brings us to the problem 3D faced, what if watching a program in 4K UHD HDR exceeds the hassle factor? What if the HD program looks good enough in 4K? In fact, 4K sets do a remarkably good job of automatically upscaling HD into 4K. Perhaps the extra money to pay for 4K content won’t be worth it to consumers. After all, how many people do you know are still watch the SD channels on their HD sets (my mom is raising her hand) or save a dollar by renting the movie in SD? If content producers can’t profit by spending the extra money to create a 4K UHD HDR HFR version, then they’ll create less 4K content and with less really amazing content, consumers won’t be compelled to watch. Can 4K then live up to the hype?

If nothing else, the industry learned to temper expectations with 4K. However, the alphabet soup that the industry has created with 4K UHD HDR HFR might leave consumers wary (I didn’t even mention curved TVs!). After all TV’s aren’t like phones, you don’t buy a new one next year because of a perceived marginal improvement. Fortunately, 4K has time on its side. The declining cost of manufacturing 4K sets means if you buy a set over 42 inches, then chances are it will be in 4K. Given time 4K content will accumulate, if slowly, and eventually more cable channels will be in 4K and finally the big broadcast networks will provide regularly scheduled 4K programming. This is all great news for 4K, that is unless 8K (pushed by NHK and others) becomes the next big thing or people chuck their TVs altogether for the Next Really Big Thing: Virtual Reality.

Virtual Reality
VR and its close cousins, Augmented Realty and Mixed Reality have burst on the scene and created a mosh pit of quickly evolving technology and expanding hype. Donning a headset and immersing oneself into a virtual real world or computer generated world can be an amazing experience; you can feel yourself on the edge of a precipice or up close and personal with exotic animals or within an addicting game environment. It is much more immersive than 3D TV could ever be, but it superficially exhibits some of the same problems. First you have to wear a headset for VR, which is much more bulky and heavier than 3D glasses and so you’ll hear concerns about comfort or the length of time people will wear the headsets without fatigue. Motion within the VR environment can make some people ill and even sick if the content creator is not careful. Finally, there are already complaints about the lack of good content and the proliferation of bad content. Will VR be the next 3D? Maybe not, it all depends again on the magic brew of technology and creative content, unless the hype gets out too far in front.

With VR technology changing at a dizzying pace any discussion will be obsolete before this article is finished. The changes are wrapped up in the need to increase the speed and resolution at which images are processed and delivered to the headset. Better resolution and quicker processing mean a more realistic and immersive environment, whether the images reach the headset via wires from a stationary processing platform (a computer or gaming console) or delivered wirelessly or even if you are carrying it around in a backpack. Because the screen is now so close to your eyes, in order to create a “perfect” experience VR experts think that each eye should be looking a 4K screen and have a frame rate of 120fps. Processing and delivering such images is beyond the capabilities of current products, so expect that VR will be in a constant state of upgrade. Add to that increasing number external add-ons being developed that will allow you to use your hands to interact with what you see or you to move about in space.

With VR, 3D might have its best chance at a revival, because VR is all about immersion and 2D VR content is more like watching video on a very large flat screen, without the illusion of depth that 3D provides. To be truly immersive, VR needs to be 3D.

The technology can present as many hurdles as benefits. The reality of VR can increase one’s phobias. Think about having a fear of height; logically you know you are in a room, but trying to walk along that narrow beam above a gaping chasm can dredge up the same unpleasant fear and anxiety. However, VR could also be used to decrease a person’s fear of heights or of flying through VR training in a totally safe environment.

What are the social implications of VR? VR’s realism could become a tool of empathy, giving us a better understanding of just what it is like to actually walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it is within different cultures, social classes or even gender. VR could also further desensitize us to violence. What will be are reaction to being able to kill someone up close with all the sense of realism that VR can provide? The vast majority of games are first person shooter games. Could they become too realistic?

VR can cause eyestrain, dizziness and nausea, often called “Simulator Sickness,” after the effect people in simulators experience. Insufficient speed of image delivery that lags behind the movements of your head can make you nauseous, that’s because your eyes and mind are telling you two different things (think car sickness). Just staring intently at such tiny screens, especially when the resolution is low, can cause eye strain.

And beyond hard core gamers, will the vast majority of people want to wear headsets covering their eyes and ears for long periods of time, let’s say the 90 to 120 minutes of a feature length movie? Solving these issues will be a significant factor in whether VR can supplant other entertainment platforms or is just another platform or worse, the next 3D. But beyond the technology, just like 3D, when you get home with your new VR headset will there be (good) content to watch?

Where is the technology taking us? Computer generated VR experiences and games allow the user to explore any environment an artist’s imagination can dream up. Incorporating Artificial Intelligence (AI) can allow each experience to be unique. Filmed VR experiences will naturally be more realistic, but they are initially limited in showing what the camera (or cameras) capture. Newer filmed VR experiences are adding gaming type features that will allow users to choose different paths, because multiple versions have been filmed. Audio will be important in both environments, creating audio cues that will focus the user’s attention in a specific direction, helping to fulfill the storytellers vision and making sure you don’t miss something while your head is turned.

Gaming and CGI content will probably be out front in quality and entertainment value, but there is a lot of early video 360 content already available, thanks to the proliferation of VR cameras. However, quality can be suspect. Is it VR if you are watching a play in which all the action takes place in front while to the left and right are empty seats and behind you is a wall? Technically yes, but really it’s value is no greater than had it been shot in HD. Nothing is more likely to get people to take off their headsets and maybe never put them on again than a couple of bad, boring or awful experiences. That includes not only experiences like the play I mentioned, but shaky or quick motion content that induces nausea. Make a first time user throw up and they’ll be very reluctant to put the headset on again.

With manufacturers, venture capitalists, studios, game producers and individuals in the game, a steady stream of good quality is inevitable, but will it evolve to become revolutionary? Will the kind of checks written by the studios to create summer blockbusters also be written to create VR feature films? It is becoming a more heated argument with big name Hollywood directors weighing in. Even if the VR ecosystem is evolving faster than 3D did, the obstacles to creating a feature length VR film are much more daunting. A completely new cinematic language must be created. At the beginning of the film industry, films were presented as if you were watching a play; complete scenes with no camera movement or film cutting. It was years before someone edited a close up into a scene. It seems so obvious a technique now, but without any reference to any other art form it was truly revolutionary. In VR a close up is not needed and can take you out of the experience, so a new language for VR will need to be created for long form story telling. But to have half a chance at this occurring, someone needs to slow down the hypersonic hype machine that is developing around VR.

Here is the press release that will kill VR: “Industry Bigwig Says That Holodecks Are Just a Year Away!”
That’s the ultimate dream, correct? You won’t need that bulky headset, it will be just like Star Trek Next Generation’s fictional room where any environment, complete with people, can be created. Consumers (and reporters), complaining about the headsets will keep asking insiders when the headsets will go away and, inevitably, someone will get caught up with the enthusiasm and make the pronouncement. Everybody will then just sit on their hands and wait.

But another trap revolves around some of the glowing reviews and promotional videos of current interactive VR games and videos. Inevitably reviewers, reporters and early adopters have been using the latest HTC Vive or Oculus Rift with all the gadgets and on a really fast computer. However, those headsets start at $600, add a couple of hundred dollars for accessories and, if your computer is not up to snuff, at least another $800. Now compare to the actual introduction most people have to VR; the (maybe) $5 spent for Google Cardboard with cheap lenses to view their year-old smart phone through. It is not hard to picture their enthusiasm turning to disappointment as they stare at a 2D video of a rhino or bear wandering near the camera for a couple of minutes. The ever increasing number of devices with wildly varying capabilities is unique to VR.

The industry must take the time to separate out and define the various types of VR, define what they can and cannot deliver and finally point out to consumers the best content to watch in order to experience the true capabilities of whatever device they are using.

Believe it or not there are some areas of VR that aren’t being over hyped and that is in the area of VR for instruction and training. The same VR that has been available for pilots in simulators can be applied to many other professions, from doctors practicing tricky surgeries to linemen dealing with downed power lines. VR can help save lives, reduce costs and improve training in many areas. Then there is the educational value for schools and universities. This and not entertainment could become the largest sector of the industry

I haven’t even mentioned AR, Augmented Reality. This area of the industry is so new that the possibilities haven’t even been fully explored yet. Forget Pokemon Go, there are companies like Magic Leap, Meta and Microsoft’s HoloLens whose headsets will allow you see the world around you with holographic images and objects layered in and which you can interact with. This provides another completely different stream of information, entertainment, educational and lifestyle enhancements to look forward to. It ultimately could become the competitor that will answer the question on whether 4K or VR are the next 3D.

Ultimately what the companies, the investors and the creators behind 4K and VR are trying to accomplish is a modification to consumer behavior, much like the computer and the mobile phone have done. 4K will supplant your HD TV and VR will replace your gaming device and maybe your TV and AR could replace your computer, your phone, the TV and maybe your VR headset.

Can they overcome technology and content hurdles and avoid a hype disillusionment? That’s why 3D failed, even though the technology worked, consumers didn’t like the complex issues surrounding the glasses, couldn’t find enough compelling content to watch and were quickly disillusioned by the hype. So, consider 3D a cautionary tale and 4K and VR should continue looking over their shoulders, because sooner or later, the next big thing is coming.

The Author:
Entertainment executive, Mark Ringwald, headed up acquisitions, scheduling and operations for 3net, the 3D cable network and joint venture of Sony, Discovery and IMAX. Helping to create a 3D television network from a brand new technology, he quickly developed an expertise on the subject and was invited to speak at MIPCOM and MIPTV, Kids Screen and the Banff Television Festival. As the network pivoted to 4K, Mark assisted in the creation of 4K workflows and process between 3net and Sony. He also created two short form 4K films and distributed them and other 4K content to clients. A consultant to media companies, international companies and tech startups, he is currently working with the Virtual Content Group on VR business development.

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