Seeing is believing: Consumer electronics manufacturers bring 3D movie buzz to the home
“The world’s most advanced movie theatres use DLP technology—shouldn’t you?”
Imagine this author’s surprise upon entering the annual CEA Line Show, a high-tech and trend showcase hosted by the Consumer Electronics Association in New York City in June. Mitsubishi Electric was advertising the future of entertainment in the home: 82 inches (208 cm) of “mammoth 3DTV,” with 33% more colors (by covering 96% of the color gamut of the NTSC standard) and lightweight active glasses at the ready. To better illustrate all the tech talk, Mitsubishi, just like the other TV makers and marketers in attendance, had theatrical trailers for Despicable Me and Guardians of Ga’Hoole running. As Vizio presented Street Dance 3D and the 3D@Home booth predicted Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs rather than stormy weather ahead, all of them were underlining one positive message to take away: 3D wouldn’t stand much of a chance at home if it weren’t for the theatrical experience.
Reporting that early adopters are enjoying “a largely positive 3D-at-home experience,” Chris Chinnock of Insight Media research detailed that 3D gaming and theatrical releases will help sell 3DTVs as the first wave of cable and satellite 3D broadcasts roll out in 2010. “The bottom line is content-creation companies are motivated to see 3D succeed at home as it has in movie theatres. 3D is a very attractive source of revenue for Hollywood.”
And for the manufacturers of consumer electronics, too. Showing clips from Alice in Wonderland, videogames, special footage and live 3D broadcasts of World Cup soccer games, Sony’s home-theatre lounge made compellingly clear why Sony is also in the content business. The company “that makes the 3D cameras that capture the FIFA World Cup,” the ad slogan proposes, and “knows the most about creating 3D movies, also makes the best HDTV with 3D to experience them.”
During an entire afternoon session dedicated to that very same 3D@Home experience and organized by the industry consortium of the same name (www.3dathome.org), Sony Broadcast and Production Systems’ Alec Shapiro stressed how the company’s vertically integrated opportunities are reaching “from the lens to the living room… On the display side, we learned from what we do in movie theatres.” Ever since 3D has caught on in theatres, he noted, “[his] kids won’t even go unless it’s 3D.” Shapiro is confident that “consumer reactions will only get much better.”
Similarly, John Batter predicted 3D to become “the pervasive primary form of visual consumption” over the next five years. DreamWorks Animation’s co-president of production explained why the company chose to make the dimensional Blu-ray edition of Monsters vs. Aliens available on a number of selected Samsung sets exclusively. As the film was authored stereoscopically, rather than converted from 2D, early in the production cycle, “it was decided that we wanted the film to be displayed in the best possible way.” For DreamWorks, this bundling of content and hardware provided “a great consumer experience right out of the box.” Batter also confirmed that the studio is looking at converting classic titles from its library. Since DreamWorks’ animation is natively digital, more creative changes are possible than would be with live action. “A film well-shot in 3D is not inexpensive,” he mused.
When moderator Seth Porges of Popular Mechanics magazine brought up the apparent “3D fatigue in theatres in relationship to pricing,” the panel countered with the actual box-office numbers. “We’re not seeing that in our exit surveys,” Batter insisted, yet noted his concern about 2D-to-3D conversions. It’s about “premium pricing for a premium product.” Dan Chinasi, Samsung’s senior marketing manager in the HDTV product planning/visual display product group, argued, drawing a comparison to the option on many 3D sets that auto-converts 2D images. To him, that’s a “stopgap” until consumers have enough original 3D content to justify their investment. However, “the popcorn effect” kicks in when the latter makes watching television a special occasion again. “The more content there is in theatres,” Shapiro concurred, “the more stimulation that creates for the home.” That’s why “Sony keeps on pushing the needle forward.”
THX, as well, “has always been about a great user experience.” As the company’s head of strategic development of new technologies and the chairman of 3D@Home, Rick Dean called 3D the “buzzword of the year” before delineating the industry consortium’s goal of creating a standard for the 3D ecosystem of the home. “There are many pieces and moving parts that need to work together seamlessly,” he said. “Hollywood studios, content production firms and companies from all corners of the electronics industry are working to make that happen.”
To underline the positioning of the new technology, Dean specifically mentioned “how seriously the 3D environment is treated by Hollywood” in terms of stories, rigs and special effects. Yet, somewhat contrarian, the description of the presentation had stated: “The 3D revolution will be televised, delivered on disc and even streamed to home theatres near you…” Granted that Dean was speaking for the home, but Film Journal International wanted to know: What about the movie theatre? After all, that’s where THX got started.
Graham McKenna, head of communications at THX, quickly set the record straight for our readers, exclusively. “While THX holds a strong position in the world of consumer electronics,” he contends, “we continue to research and develop technologies and standards to improve how audiences experience movies in the cinema. THX has always believed that the cinema and home-theatre experiences are special and unique in their own way. The cinema still gives you the big-screen experience with an auditorium full of speakers playing at cinematic Reference Level,” he says, delineating the differences. “And the cinema lets you enjoy a shared, social experience with a large audience.” By contrast, “the home theatre is more intimate and personal. It allows you to hit the pause button, take care of the kids or eat dinner, while still enjoying great sound and pictures.”
How exhibitors can fight back—now that the technologies they pay for and help promote are once again making headway into the home—is all about marketing and positioning, McKenna feels. “The cinema community, which includes THX, needs to position the cinema experience as something unique and compelling. In fact, we can all learn from each other.” Especially now “as the cinema industry is moving towards alternative content, such as live sports and concerts, something traditionally reserved for TV/VOD viewing. With TV manufacturers spending millions of dollars on marketing to support 3D in the home,” he would even argue “that they are also helping to promote the overall 3D experience, which could also be beneficial to the cinema community.”
On that mutually supportive note, XpanD Cinema’s chief marketing officer, Ami Dror, sees further opportunities when it comes to glasses. XpanD’s upcoming line of “universal” glasses “will work with almost all the TVs and also in the cinema.” The ones XpanD manufactures for the cinema will not work at home, he assures, “making it useless to steal them.” During 3D@Home, the company’s head of gaming and retail, David Chechelashvili, noted that there are currently no less than ten proprietary ways to connect active glasses to their corresponding TV displays. No wonder Dror sees “an opportunity for exhibitors to sell ‘universal’ glasses [at the same time] as it solves the handling issue for them.”
Also ending is “the exclusivity of the cinema exhibitors regarding 3D,” Dror observes. “Yet for those exhibitors who choose to use high-quality 3D in their cinemas, the advantage of massive screen size will keep on acting as major quality-plus. As long as they provide a superior 3D experience, people will come to the cinema.”
At the same time, those exhibitors who select a passive solution “will have to face cinemagoers that bought home glasses for $150 and are expected to use disposable low-cost glasses in the cinema. This will clearly not work,” Dror opines. “In the long run, those exhibitors will have to switch to active 3D or add XpanD cinemas for those guests who want to bring their own glasses.”
After pointing out that he has “been saying for the last five years that 3D at home is a reality,” Dror offered some advice on how exhibitors can keep their competitive edge against the competition for the home. “Quality, Quality, Quality. And alternative content that will make the cinema into an entertainment destination.”
Reality Check 2010
“We’ve known 3D for a hundred-plus years, but it never really succeeded as a home-entertainment experience,” Shawn DuBravac of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) wants to let our readers know. “For the first time, it has the potential to excel in the home and largely because of the success at the box office and of the experience that consumers had in theatres.”
For the CEA Line Show, the trade association’s chief economist and research director provided some insight into the state of consumer affairs. Calling the overall economic climate “mediocre at best,” DuBravac remains wary of “the delicate handoff the economy faces, from a government stimulus-driven surge to one that must be moved forward by private industry.” Overall consumption has held up relatively well, he reported, though at the expense of saving. “Consumer spending on technology as a percentage of their spending on all durable goods is steadily climbing, continuing a decades-long trend.”
The CEA saw unit volume of flat-screen TVs rise 19% throughout 2009. “That’s incredible in this climate.” DuBravac notes, “[compared to] some other consumer sectors: major appliances, home furnishings, housing.. they got absolutely decimated. Tourism and hospitality suffered. Part of it, I think, is that technology is being perceived as more of a necessity, as opposed to a luxury.”
He also identified several other categories that the CEA anticipates will see strong sales. “One in three households is expected to buy a new TV this year. That’s showing a willingness on the part of consumers to invest in their homes, since the average American home already has 2.6 TVs.” 3DTV sales should also gain “some critical mass” during the upcoming second half of the year, with 70,000 3D-equipped or 3D-ready TVs being shipped each month on average.
The CEA is expecting overall 2010 sales in the two million to 2.5 million unit range. “Mirroring the launches of past new technologies,” 3DTV sales should spike in the fourth quarter, with anywhere from 50 to 70% of sales occurring during the holiday selling season, of course.
“Consumers and individuals who have experienced 3D first-hand typically have a better impression and higher opinion of 3D,” DuBravac noted during a subsequent conversation with Film Journal International. “They go back for more.” Quoting current research whereby half of the 27% of U.S. online adults who saw 3D movies or a 3D event enjoyed more than one, he concludes, “Clearly, that they are attracted… Nearly two in five say they would prefer to watch a 3D movie in the theatre over the same movie in 2D. 3D movies at the box office are doing a good job competing for screens and they are also winning when it comes to consumer attention.”
Going back to the last big winning change in the home, “we had to show consumers that HDTV was a better viewing experience than what they were used to,” he recalls. “We don’t have to do that for 3D, as consumers fundamentally understand that it is different.” What the consumer-electronics industry has to demonstrate, however, is that “the 3D that consumers think of, or the 3D they know from the past, is not at all what we are talking about today. It is a much more enjoyable experience and 85% of consumers who saw 3D were satisfied with it.”
In closing, DuBravac assures that CEA research really shows “that having a fabulous theatrical experience leaves consumers wanting more 3D, both at the box office as well as the opportunity to bring it into the home.”