3D Display – the stereoscopic type where users where viewers wear glasses to see in 3D – has clearly been a niche for many years, subject to fads and later fading from consciousness. But recent advancements in technology are changing the equation. Perhaps the hottest 3D segment today is digital cinema where the electronic projectors used to show 2D movies can readily be adapted to show 3D movies. And these theaters are going to be used for much more – like 3D sporting events, 3D concerts, 3D gaming experiences and more.

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To analyze and forecast the emerging market for 3D, market research firm Insight Media (Norwalk, CT; www.insightmedia.info), with support from US Display Consortium, has released a comprehensive new report entitled 3D Technology and Markets: A Study of All Aspects of Electronic 3D Systems, Applications and Markets.

“We are standing at the cusp of a new wave of enthusiasm for stereoscopic 3D,” notes Insight Media President, Chris Chinnock. “This report is groundbreaking in that it surveys the entire 3D industry from cameras to displays, along with nearly 40 market segments. What is remarkable is that each application has developed its own solutions, culture and technology with little awareness of other applications with similar needs and technology. This report, and a subsequent symposium and exhibition we have planned for September, should help create awareness of the richness of the 3D industry and allow for interdisciplinary discussions and cross-pollination of these applications.” The market for stereoscopic 3D displays is starting to generate some serious attention – and investment dollars. Stereoscopic 3D displays create left and right eye images with a slightly different perspective that mimics the way humans see in 3D. Displays created with this technology can offer very compelling images. While 3D displays have mostly enjoyed success in specialized niche markets to date, things are changing – and rapidly.

Consider the following recent developments in 3D markets and technology:

* The NBA All-Star game was broadcast live via a closed circuit system in stereoscopic 3D to rave reviews. The broadcast highlighted the viability of live 3D and showed the strengths of 3D for basketball where the focus of the action is a short distance from viewers.
* RealD has plans to outfit nearly 800 digital cinema theaters by the end of 2007 – that’s a lot of theaters. Recent 3D movies have consistently provided revenue-per-screen far in excess of the same move shown in 2D. That has exhibitors, Hollywood and investors pretty excited. As a result, RealD has just raised $50M and has purchased ColorLink, a key supplier of the polarization technology used in 3D cinema.
* By 2009 it is expected that there will be >2000 3D cinema screens in the US, enough to enable the launch of James Cameron’s film “Avatar” only in 3D, without an accompanying 2D version.
* Dolby Labs, long known for it pioneering work in high-quality audio and video, has announced it is in the 3D cinema game, too. It plans to develop a stereoscopic 3D cinema system based on an approach that is different than RealD’s. In Dolby’s approach, theater attendees will wear glasses that contain red, green and blue narrow-passband filters. But the peak passband of each color set will be slightly shifted for the left and right eyes and matched to the projector to separate the left and right images. One advantage of this technology over RealD’s is the exhibitor is not required to replace his screen with an expensive polarization-preserving screen.
* Most PC games can be played in stereoscopic 3D, if the gamer has the right video card, drivers and display. Unfortunately, 3D quality and compatibility of the available games varies greatly. To address the PC game market, Meant to be Seen (MTBS; Toronto, Ontario; www.mtbs3d.com), a new Stereoscopic 3D Certification and Advocacy group for PC games, has issued a Stereoscopic 3D Programming guide for video game developers. In addition, they have begun a program to certify the 3D quality and compatibility of existing and future PC game releases.
* iZ3D, a joint venture formed by Chi Mei Optoelectronics and Neurok Optics, announced they will develop and market 3D display products for the electronic entertainment market, especially the PC gaming market, as well as for commercial and professional visualization applications. In addition to providing Stereoscopic 3D, this technology provides full HD image quality when showing either 2D or 3D content.
* According to a recently formed consortium called Interactive Digital Center (IDC; http://www.eonreality.com/idc/idcconsortium/index.htm), there is not enough awareness of the real benefits of using 2D and 3D visualization technology, especially interactive 3D visualization. That’s why NVIDIA, Christie Digital, HP and EON Reality have joined together to form the IDC Consortium. Their mission is to establish a de facto worldwide standard for real time visualization solutions.
* In Europe, another consortium has been formed to develop laser-based 3D rear projection display systems initially targeted at medical applications, and longer-term, for applications like home TV use. These multi-viewer displays do not require the viewers to wear glasses and are designed to overcome the “sweet-spot” limitations of prior autostereoscopic displays. The consortium, lead by the Imaging and Displays Research Group (IDRG) at UK-based De Montfort University, also includes Fraunhofer HHI (Germany); Eindhoven University of Technology (the Netherlands); University of West Bohemia (Czech Republic); Sharp Laboratories of Europe; Biotronics3D and Light Blue Optics (UK). Dr Ian Sexton, leader of the IDRG, said: “Three-dimensional televisions have been developed before, but they have all had limitations. This project is a major advance in that we aim to produce a television that is, for the first time, practical.”

The new 3D report finds that recent advances in 3D display technologies have given them 2D and 3D image quality equal to the best 2D LCD monitors TVs and projectors at price premiums that are in the range professionals and consumers have shown a willingness to pay. This indicates that key pieces of the 3D puzzle are falling into place and will result in the much more widespread adoption of 3D systems in several key market segments. These improved, moderate-cost technologies will first move into existing markets for 3D displays and enable the development of new, broader markets in the future.

Cinema in particular has been episodic, as shown in the figure. The first known 3D movie was in 1903, and the 3D fad peaked in 1953 with 61 films shown. The resurgence in the 70’s was fueled in part by adult films and in the 90’s in part by films shown in theme parks and other special venues.

“Everything seems to be coming together at the same time, notes Matthew Brennesholtz, one of Insight Media’s principle analysts on the report. “The display technology, the video content and the software are all available to allow the 3D business to expand significantly.”

The 380-page 3D report documents the current state of the 3D industry including displays, image sources, formats, standards, applications and markets. There is an in-depth evaluation of the current and forecast market, including industry revenue forecasts through 2011. These forecasts are broken down by display technology, display size and application category. Forecasts are also provided for specific markets, both in terms of unit sales and revenue streams.

“Throughout this report Insight Media has cut through the hype and wild forecasts that have been common in 3D systems throughout its 150+ year history,” Brennesholtz adds. “We have strived to produce a report that comes to reasonable conclusions and forecasts based on the facts, markets and technologies. This is different from many previous studies of 3D technology that were often written by enthusiasts and contained wildly inflated predictions.”

In addition to display-specific material, the 3D Technology and Markets report contains an in-depth discussion of related technologies including ones for image generation, formats and standards. Special attention is paid to 3D video formats that are backward compatible with the existing 2D video infrastructure. The report also includes a list of 650+ companies, universities, consortia and standards bodies involved in 3D systems, with profiles on 26 of them.

“This list of 3D companies is the most complete list we could generate, and probably the most complete in the world” says Brennesholtz, “but it is not and cannot be complete. Type ‘3D anything’ into Google and you will find an emerging company not on the list. I tried ‘3D Refrigerators’ and got Turbo Squid, a company that sells 116 3D computer graphics models of, you guessed it, refrigerators.” The most serious competition the stereoscopic 3D industry faces is from the very high quality available of 3D images rendered onto 2D displays. In many cases, viewers see the images as so realistic that they see no need for true stereoscopic 3D displays.

An example of the type of data that can be found in this new report is shown in the graphic below showing the market forecast for Large Screen (>40″) 3D displays through 2011. Most of these displays are currently projection systems although LCD flat panel displays are expected to penetrate the lower size ranges in this category before 2011. These displays are currently used mainly for cinema, data visualization, corporate branding and education. The forecast represents the revenue realized by the 3D industry as a result of retrofit/add-on 3D capabilities or dedicated systems.

“3D markets are very poorly documented in terms of sales and revenue,” comments Brennesholtz. “This shows up in the figure as the relatively large uncertainty in even the historical data from 2005 and 2006.”

More details on this promising market segment and many other conclusions are included in Insight Media’s 3D Technology and Markets: A Study of All Aspects of Electronic 3D Systems, Applications and Markets. Insight Media analysts attending the Projection Summit, June 17 & 18, 2007 in Anaheim, California, will also discuss conclusions of the report.

This report was co-authored by Matthew Brennesholtz and Art Berman. Mr. Brennesholtz is the co-author of the well-respected book, Projection Displays, several other reports from Insight Media and numerous SID and SPIE papers. Dr. Berman received his Ph.D. in Physics from Kent State University. He has been the lead technologist in 4 overseas factory deployments by start-ups and has extensive experience in developing new products and new processes.