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Online Video: To 3D or Not to 3D?

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To date, VUDU has more than 40 3D titles in stock, including Tron: Legacy and The Green Hornet. “As more 3D content is made available for home audiences, we intend to grow the offering so that we can provide our 3D-enabled customers with the most-convenient way to instantly access 3D content at home,” Spaan says. “Instead of searching retail stores for 3D content, or ordering the physical disc online and waiting for it to arrive, VUDU users can search our 3D movie library and get access to 3D movies the same day that they are released on DVD or Blu-ray. It’s far more convenient.”

On the PC side, inputting “watch 3D streaming video” into Google brings up dozens of pages of links (65 pages when this article was written). 3D videos can be found on popular sites such as YouTube; clearly, the content is out there.

For its part, NVIDIA is trying to encourage the production of free, quality 3D content through its own portal, www.3DVisionLive.com. “We offer 3D photos, 3D video, YouTube 3D video and 3D apps,” says Barad. “We are showcasing the work of creative 3D content producers, and generating a buzz about this content on the web.”

Act 3: The Play Considered

So far, we have seen how the stage has been set for 3D streaming video. We have reviewed the current cast of players, both for internet-connected TVs and desktop/ laptop PCs.

Now it is time to consider the play and the plot that drives it: What is 3D streaming media actually useful for? And what uses do not make sense — when is a producer in danger of unintentionally turning its 3D epic into a farce?

With 18 years’ experience as a stereographer (“Actually, I believe that I coined the term”), Goodman has had ample time to ponder this question. “When it comes to, ‘3D or not to 3D’, for me, it’s always 3D,” Goodman explains. “We experience life in 3D all the time; why would we not want visual stories to be told this way?”

Having said this, Goodman adds that 3D needs to be used “thoughtfully, artfully, and judiciously. Gratuitous or gimmicky effects become boring quickly. ... When properly executed, cinematic 3D is the closest thing to magic I’m aware of.”

In this context, one can see how 3D could make sense in a training film; for instance, to walk the viewers around an engine that is being taken apart. 3D could also help explain mathematical equations in action, such as the trajectory of a bullet fired from a gun, as affected by wind and gravity. In fact, 3D video could be very useful in educational content that is widely streamed over the web by schools and corporations.

3D can also liven up a commercial or corporate video, as long as the ways in which it is used add substance, rather than meaningless sizzle. A 3D streaming video of a new car can make a difference if it brings the viewer in closer contact with the product. But if the 3D streaming video simply zooms the viewer in and out, like a bad 1950’s 3D horror film, then it actually detracts from what is being shown.

“The secret in using 3D is not to pigeon-hole it by project or genre,” Goodman observes. “Instead, consider 3D as a tool on a case-by-case basis; just as you would any other storytelling tool. And don’t think that you have to put 3D into people’s faces all the time. Sometimes the subtle use of 3D can enhance the story, without demanding the viewer’s total attention.”

Goodman offers a further caution about using 3D: It is still being seen as a fad in some production circles, which makes its acceptance uncertain. “It’s amazing how a bit of bad press about the box office performance of movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Kung Fu Panda 2 [which are both presented in 3D] can affect the business,” he notes. “The negative articles have definitely depressed the 3D production market, which shows that the market has yet to fully grasp 3D’s potential.”

This ambivalence is reflected in the words of VUDU’s Spaan. When Streaming Media asks, “Is 3D streaming video the wave of the future or just a novelty?” she replies, “We are committed to offering our consumers [a] choice in how they want to view their entertainment content. As long as 3D content is being produced, we plan to offer that content to our customers.”

Act 4: Alternative Endings

A good play has a strong plot, solid players, and a well-dressed stage. When it comes to 3D streaming media, we have seen that, although the plot is uncertain, the players are competent, and the stage is well-equipped and ready for a performance.

As for the ending of this play, “To 3D or Not to 3D,” like the DVD release of a modern Hollywood blockbuster, it is open to alternative endings.

The Happy Ending: The adventurous content producers elect to create material that can be seen and works in both 3D and 2D. In doing so, they cover all of their bases and futureproof their content. If 3D proves to be a winner, the producer is able to capitalize on it. But if it’s a flash in the pan, they always have their 2D version available for streaming.

The Tragic Ending: Content producers create 2D-only content — and 3D becomes the de facto streaming standard. Or producers create material specifically for 3D, and the format is a bust. Either way, they are stuck with content that no one is viewing.

The Farcical Ending: Content producers create programming for both 2D and 3D, but they do so in such a way that works badly in both. For instance, their videos use lots of in-and-out zooms meant to spotlight 3D effects. In 3D, the effects look cheesy. In 2D, they just induce motion sickness.

Act 5: The Moral

Every good play has a moral, and the moral of “To 3D or Not to 3D” is this: 3D effects are merely tools that can be used to enhance storytelling. So when it comes to deciding whether to 3D or not to 3D, it is the story that should decide the answer, whether for iPads, laptops, desktops, internet-connected TVs, or movie screens.

This article first appeared in the October/November 2011 issue of Streaming Media under the title "To 3D or Not to 3D?" 

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