3D’s Niche Play

Despite all the hoopla, 3D remains a niche play in the consumer market. Tim Kridel explores whether the technology is getting more traction in pro AV – and whether it even matters.

If Thor and Americans are any indication, many consumers are still skeptical about whether 3D is worth the extra money. On the film’s opening weekend in May, roughly half of moviegoers chose the 2D version, according to the analyst firm BTIG. 

"We continue to believe the U.S. consumer is frustrated by the excessive pricing of 3D and that the 3D experience is increasingly being viewed as a gimmick to squeeze more money out of moviegoers, with 3D often adding very little to a movie’s enjoyment (beyond eye fatigue and a headache)," BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield wrote in a research note.

Meanwhile, worldwide 3D TV shipments are on track to increase 463 percent this year, says IHS iSuppli, another research firm. That would be impressive except for two factors: It still would be only 23.4 million sets worldwide, and a recent 9 percent price cut helped boost sales.

These stats bear watching by AV pros partly because consumer experiences and preferences influence what they expect in venues such as museums and malls. That in turn affects whether, for example, a digital signage network needs to add 3D displays because advertisers believe the effects will draw attention to their content. So far, 3D appears to be even more of a niche play in the pro market.

“3D in the commercial space – usually lumped into digital signage – has not yet generated enough volume to be a track-able or a forecast-able technology,” says  Chris Connery, DisplaySearch vice president. “From what we can gather, 3D displays might only be in the single thousands a year worldwide.”

Who wants it?

But niches can be deep and lucrative, which is one reason why it’s a mistake to dismiss the 3D pro AV market as too small to pursue. The opportunity varies significantly by vertical, with oil and gas, health care and the sciences currently among the more fertile markets.

“3D offers a novelty that is predominantly of interest to specific markets such as recreation, entertainment and retail, where attraction is important,” says Jeff Collard, president of Omnivex, which specialises in signage software. 

Although 3D hardware and content typically carries a price premium, some AV pros say a hard sell isn’t always necessary. 

“Most commercial 3D users know they need 3D capability because they have a need to visualise or virtualise specific environments or experiences,” says Chuck Collins, Digital Projection’s vice president of sales. “3D projection is an essential tool for that purpose. 

“In other words most commercial 3D users don’t have to be ‘sold.’ Rather, technological capabilities need to be fully explained and matched with a need.”

Education is an example of a vertical where selling is necessary. NEC is working with Texas Instruments on a series of 3D pilot projects in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. The goal: determine whether 3D makes a noticeable difference in helping K-12 students learn and retain lessons. The initial results are encouraging, NEC says.

“The teachers that used the technology really saw benefits for certain topics,” says Ulf Greiner, product line manager for business projectors at NEC Display Solutions Europe. “The students understood better faster certain topics. They got a lot more attention, which might be related to the novelty factor, but to some extent it’s also something that could be lasting.” 

A report on the pan-European project – which includes research by a U.K. professor –was due to publish by early June. It could provide the kind of data that helps sell 3D not just into K-12 and higher education, but also into vertical where employee training is common and intensive. 

Even so, seeing is believing, which highlights the role that consumer experiences play in influencing demand for 3D in the commercial space.

“The expectations and interest are fuelled from certain areas, such as cinema and gaming,” says Gerd Kaiser, product line manager for large-venue projectors at NEC Display Solutions Europe.

AV pros in some regions say they’d like to see more 3D – in any environment – to help build awareness of the technology’s impact.

“3D in [the] pro market here in the Middle East is still in its infancy,” says Ahmed Sayeed, founder and managing director of Qatar-based Technomight. “We need a few more real-life installations here for clients to see the value versus impact of this technology. But we as integrators are definitely not sceptical, as we know the clients in this market can and will spend on anything that gives them that extra edge.” 

Some argue that 3D itself will get an edge once autostereoscopic technology starts to become the norm.

"Glasses-based 3D is very difficult to sell apart from cinemas," says André Ingram, whose first 3D project was in 1999 as the system designer of a 3D cinema exhibit at Saudi Aramco. "Digital signage and museums are too difficult for glasses management. Glasses-free will change all that."

Price premiums shrinking?

In both consumer and pro, 3D adoption will increase as hardware and content costs decline, shrinking the premium over 2D. But some pro AV companies say the premium has already shrunk to a point so negligible that it makes business sense for some clients to pay a little extra. One reason is because it’s a way to future-proof equipment that probably still will be in service when 3D starts to become the rule rather than the exception. 

U.S.-based Exceptional 3D is one example. The company’s product portfolio includes 2D NEC displays that it modifies by adding a screen-wide lens to enable glasses-free 3D. The lens doesn’t distort 2D images, so it’s possible to switch back and forth between 2D and 3D content, or have a 2D crawl at the bottom of a 3D video. Exceptional 3D highlights that flexibility when targeting verticals such as digital signage.

“We say, ‘Why get a 2D screen when you can get a 3D screen that’s just a little bit more money and can also play 2D content?’” says Michael Egan, CEO. “You’re future-proofing the investment.

“I’m not competing with other 3D companies. I’m now competing with 2D because we’ve brought the prices down so low.” 

For vendors and integrators hoping for fatter margins in 3D, the good news is that some verticals are willing to pay whatever premium still exists.

"We are definitely seeing growth in the demand for stereo hardware in markets such as computational chemistry, geo-spatial analysis and 3D post production," says Scott Robinson, Planar Systems product marketing manager. "Overall, as we look at different industries using 3D technologies, we see growing interest and a willingness to purchase top-quality stereo displays at a premium."

Content is king

One similarity between the consumer and pro 3D markets is content: The bigger the selection, the easier it is for end users to justify buying 3D displays and projects. One difference is that in pro, it’s often the clients that have to create the content or source it from a third party.

Over the past few years, a growing number of integrators have added content-creation and management to their signage portfolios because clients often are overwhelmed by the task of keeping content fresh. 3D makes that offering even more attractive to clients because they’re far less likely to have the ability to create 3D content in house.

Content also is another place where price premiums over 2D are shrinking. 

“It’s a little more expensive than 2D content, but not that much more,” says Egan of Exceptional, which also provides content-creation services and training. “A 30-second spot would be US$1,200-US$2,500 [€840-€1750].” 

Where exactly the final price falls in that range depends partly on whether the client can provide 2D assets that Exceptional can turn into 3D versions. Regardless of whether there's content that can re-purposed or whether it has to be created from scratch, it's not a skill that can be mastered overnight, which is one reason why some integrators partner with companies that have 3D expertise.

"Creating great content in 3D is not easy; creating great content in auto-stereo is even more complicated," says Tom Zerega, CEO and co-found of U.S.-based Magnetic 3D. "You have to be aware that you are not dealing with just two views of content, but five, eight, nine or even more views. This means that your render time can be extended by as much as nine times.

"Rule of thumb: Give yourself one month to get used to using auto-stereo composing tools and new plug-ins before telling your client that you can deliver auto-stereo content. Then make sure you have one month with the media assets, and you have plenty of time to create that killer piece and win your client over for good."

Which product is best?

As the selection of 3D projectors, displays and other products grows, another challenge is sifting through spec sheets to find the ones that best match the client's needs.

"Most flat-screen technologies are currently geared towards supporting the 3D Blu-ray standard, kind of a lowest common denominator in terms of what is technically possible," says Ed Martin, technical manager at U.K.-based PSCo, which recently began carrying a 152-inch Panasonic display that supports 3D. "Professional 3D solutions really ought to be able to accept high frequency inputs — 96 Hz or above — and are normally installed under controlled lighting conditions, not public areas is changing natural light as is the situation with most digital signage.

"The best way to select the right technology for a project is to see it in action. That's why we have all of the products in our portfolio in our demonstration suite, where people can see for themselves and make an informed decision."

For 3D projection, brightness is an important spec to consider. 

“Regardless of whether you’re using a passive 3D or active 3D approach, you’re going to lose a high percentage of light through the 3D process,” says Digital Projection’s Collins. “So as an example, if you’re losing 70 percent of the projector’s light output between the projector and the screen, it’s essential to start with as bright a projector as possible.”

Desirable as it might be, autostereoscopic 3D has additional considerations.

"There are multiple types of glasses-free 3D solutions on the market today, with three distinct technologies vying for market share," says Magnetic's Zerega. "The two technologies with the largest market share are barrier displays systems, which use a filter to block light coming out of the monitor, and then lenticular, which is like a sheet of magnifying lenses aligned over the pixels to create 3D pop and depth.  

"Barrier displays came first, and while they provide a nice 3D effect, they are destructive to image quality and only work well on small monitors like cell phones or handheld games."

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