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Online Video: To 3D or Not to 3D?
Does the wow-factor of 3D extend to online video? In this drama in five acts, we talk to the people working to make 3D streaming an attractive option for consumers.
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To 3D or not to 3D? For streaming media content producers, providers, and distributors, that is indeed the question.

There’s no doubt that 3D streaming video offers a wow factor — something that should compel people to watch. But is the extra bandwidth, equipment, and cost really worth the expense — especially for streaming content to computer desktops and laptops? As William Shakespeare himself might say, there’s the rub: When it comes to cost-benefit analyses, the payoff from 3D streaming video is hard to quantify.

Act 1: Setting the Stage

3D video is making inroads into the consumer electronics marketplace. Major television manufacturers such as Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, and LG are all selling 3DTVs. Meanwhile, monitor makers such as Asus, Samsung, and Viewsonic are selling 3D- capable displays, which work with 3D graphics processors and glasses such as NVIDIA’s 3D Vision system.

Despite the relatively small amount of available 3D content (assorted 3D movies, broadcast content such as ESPN 3D’s sports programming, and NVIDIA’s own 3D streaming of the 2010 Masters Tournament and NASCAR racing), consumers are buying this technology. “According to CEA’s recently published [‘13th Annual CE Ownership and Market Potential Study,’] 3DTVs are now owned by 3% of US households,” writes Shawn DuBravac, the Consumer Electronics Association’s (CEA) chief economist and director of research (as posted to his blog, Two Opinions, at www.shawn dubravac.com). “More, given the rate at which 3DTVs are currently selling — the household ownership rates for 3DTV will increase significantly in 2011 (compared to 2010).”

The future looks similarly bright for 3D-capable personal computers, with Jon Peddie Research (JPR) predicting that 75 million “Stereo 3D (S3D) PCs” will have shipped by 2014. “S3D PCs will be very attractive to several important market segments,” says the summary of Jon Peddie Research’s “3D PCs—Stereovision in PCs” report at www.jonpeddie.com. “JPR expects to see S3D PCs achieve a much higher growth rate than their more traditional counterparts and, of course, they will have a higher ASP. As a result, the S3D PC market will be very attractive to PC manufacturers and content suppliers.”

Certainly, Jon Barad is pumped about 3DPCs and the 3D content that will serve them. Of course, as NVIDIA 3D Vision’s senior business development manager, Barad’s enthusiasm comes with the job. But there’s no mistaking the sincerity of his response to the question, “Is it worthwhile for streaming video producers to get into 3D?”

“I would say absolutely yes,” Barad says. “3D is going to be the emerging form of PC media that will be exciting, compelling, and [it] offers a unique way to enjoy and connect with the content.” It doesn’t hurt that NVIDIA 3D Vision is available as a plug-in for Microsoft Silverlight players (for 3D-enabled computers).

Actually, PCs and TVs can be superior to movie theaters when it comes to watching 3D, says Jason Goodman. He is the founder and CEO of 21st Century 3D (www.21stcentury3d.com), a full-service, stereoscopic 3D pro-duction company with offices in New York and Los Angeles.

“Many movie theaters showing 3D use low-cost projectors or run lamps at low power to extend their life. Their light levels are lower than they should be,” Goodman explains. “This can cause fatigue for viewers, exacerbating the ‘focus fixation breakdown’ as their eyes maintain focus on the theater screen but fixate on objects closer to or further than the actual screen.” In contrast, 3DTV and computer screens tend to deliver bright images that are easier and more comfortable to view, he notes. “As a result, watching 3D on a TV or PC could be a better experience than seeing it in a movie house.”

As for the bandwidth required to streaming 3D content, it’s not as much of an issue as one might think, according to Caitlin Spaan. She’s the spokesperson for VUDU (www.vudu.com), the on-demand video provider recently purchased by Walmart.

“We can share what requirements are needed to stream a 3D movie on VUDU,” Spann says. “Specifically, the requirements are the same as streaming 2D and begin at 1.4Mbps for SD. Minimum requirements for HDX 3D begins at 4.5Mbps. When it comes to encoding 3D content for VUDU, there is no special equipment. 3D video is transmitted as either side-by-side or top-bottom video through the workflow.”

What about clients who want to offer 3D content but don’t want the hassle of storing and serving it? That’s where third-party companies such as Fordela Corp. (www.fordela.com) come in. Fordela’s new Ambassador media platform is being billed as the world’s first cloud-based, automated, integrated 3D video management solution. Unveiled at NAB 2011, Ambassador supports NVIDIA’s 3D Vision Silverlight-compatible system, giving 3D content producers a one-stop-shop solution for streaming to the web.

“The content producer can simply log onto their account on our website, upload their videos, and then let us do the rest,” says Fordela CEO Jason Deadrich. “They can specify the playlist and the distribution list, and indeed all other qualifications that they need to set. But from there, we can do it all for them.”

Clearly, the stage has been set for 3D streaming content: The technology exists, is penetrating the marketplace, and performs well. The transmission bandwidth required is substantial, but not outrageous. One-stop-shop platform providers also exist. Which brings us to the next question: What is there to watch?

Act 2: Assembling the Players

The answer to that question varies, depending on who you are and what you want to watch. Take movies, for example: “VUDU currently offers the most extensive 3D content library available for streaming, giving consumers equipped with 3DTVs and Blu-ray Disc players the opportunity to easily access 3D content without leaving their homes,” says Spaan.