3D TV, New Technology and the Future of Media

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 1/15/2010.

This is a moment of unparalleled change in the media world, part of a process of barely-controlled destruction and reconstruction that began over a decade ago. Business models and revenue streams are collapsing, and media creators are turning to the latest technologies to create new opportunities and new businesses. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, technology firms touted a slate of new 3D TVs as a solution to video piracy, and a way to lure fickle consumers back away from free Internet content. But are such promises tenable?

It all started in the music industry, when Napster, the original digital music sharing service, was launched in June of 1999. With music freed from the baryonic prison of vinyl, polyester tape and polycarbonate plastic, consumers could copy, edit, sample, decode and redistribute it and other copyrighted content at will.

Rights holders had always controlled their intangible product by controlling the tangible media – records, cassette tapes and CDs, as well as radio frequencies, for music; television channels and chunky videotapes for video; multiple 40-pound reels of motion picture film for movies; floppy disks and CDs for software; plus dead-tree books and photographs. Suddenly, their control of intellectual property was just gone, vaporized in a mist of ones and zeroes. On one side, many music executives saw digital media as a tremendous new opportunity for both creative expression and for business. Zoic’s Jeff Suhy, a former record company executive, was quoted in the May 2000 Village Voice: “I love that the world is quite obviously changing before our eyes and no one really knows how it’s going to play out!”

Suddenly, control of intellectual property was gone, vaporized in a mist of ones and zeroes.

On the other hand, some rights holders saw any perceived change to their traditional revenue stream as a threat to be destroyed at all costs. They dug in their heels and fought the future – engendering numerous disasters, from Circuit City’s Digital Video Express, which sold consumers DVD movies that “expired” after two days, to the RIAA’s litigious pogrom against file-sharing college kids and soccer moms. And money spent to develop various copy-protection and DRM schemes was almost always wasted, as consumers found ways to defeat protection, or avoided protected products altogether.

But some in the business world saw opportunities, not enemies. When Steve Jobs first laid eyes on the Xerox Alto in the late 1970s, with its GUI user interface and mouse controller, he saw the future of computing. Decades later, Jobs understood that the original Napster, driven out of business by the record companies, was the template for media distribution in the new millennium. With Apple’s iTunes software and online store, Jobs went from computer mogul to media mogul, taking advantage of record companies’ desperation to gain control of digital music, and appointing to himself the power to single-handedly set prices for online entertainment. But iTunes by itself would not have been enough to compete with free MP3s – it was the convenience, portability, style, incredible ease of use, sound quality and price point of the iPod that gave Apple control first of the personal music player market, and then of legitimate online music and video distribution.

Now the media industry has reached another watershed moment of change, as file-sharing endangers the revenue models of film and television creators, as well as publishers and journalists. But media moguls have absorbed the lessons of the music industry’s tribulations in the last decade, and there is a new humility in the face of change — a willingness, even an eagerness, to adapt to the new digital world, rather than to deny it. In the last few years, movie and television creators have moved their product online, to free video sites like Hulu, which will soon experiment with for-pay models; and are offering high-definition, appointment-free content on demand to home televisions through cable companies and Netflix.

There is a new humility in the face of change — an eagerness to adapt to the new digital world.

In 2010, how else are media producers taking control of the future of their own industry? What are they doing to reimagine their businesses, and insure that the media world of 2020 is profitable and stable?

Some of the answers were on display at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Publishers are betting that consumers will gladly pay to read their content on a new breed of flat, portable, easy-to-read e-book products. Just as the iPod saved music, publishers hope that Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook will save literature and journalism, at least until true e-paper is developed.

The greatest buzz at CES was elicited by a whole crop of new HDTVs with 3D capabilities. The motion picture industry and the movie theater chains are increasingly turning to 3D and IMAX as ways to lure audiences into theaters, and the current success of James Cameron’s Avatar demonstrates that even in a serious global recession, moviegoers are willing to pay extra for a high-tech movie experience they can’t get at home.

The new 3D TVs, including the Panasonic TC-PVT25 series that won the Best of CES award this year, promise to provide an in-home 3D experience for only a few hundred dollars more than ordinary HDTVs. In addition, satellite television provider DirectTV announced at CES that it has teamed with Panasonic to create three HD 3D channels, to launch this spring. Working with media partners including NBC Universal and Fox Sports, DirectTV will offer a pay-per-view channel, an on-demand channel, and a free sampler channel, all in 24-hour 3D and compatible with the current generation of sets.

Like the original HD offerings in the mid-1990s, which focused on sports events and video from space missions, the new 3D channels will offer existing 3D movies, 3D upgrades of traditional 2D movies, and sports. Unlike with HDTV however, there is no indication the government will legislate widespread adoption of 3D TV. And there are issues.

3D will likely establish its foothold in the living room is not with sports or movies, but with video games.

The greatest usability issue is the need for viewers to wear glasses. While there are experimental technologies that work without glasses, today if you want to experience high-quality 3D television images you need to wear pricey shutter glasses. Unlike the polarized glasses patrons wear at theaters, shutter glasses respond to signals from the TV, directing alternating frames to alternating eyes. The glasses are expensive – only Panasonic is promising to provide a pair with your TV purchase, and additional pairs will run around $50. At least one manufacturer is already offering lighter, more fashionable, more expensive replacement glasses.

And wearing special glasses while watching TV at home is not conducive to the average person’s lifestyle. As Microsoft exec Aaron Greenberg told GameSpy at CES, “when I play games or watch TV, I’ve got my phone, I’ve got all kinds of things going on… I get up, I get down, I’m looking outside at the weather… I’m not in a dark theater, wearing glasses, staring at a screen.” You cannot walk around comfortably wearing modern shutter glasses, and just happen to be wearing them when you want to watch TV. Until 3D TVs don’t require glasses, consumers are going to have trouble integrating 3D television watching into their lives.

The new 3D TVs also suffer from varying levels of picture clarity and a pronounced flicker, although these issues are expected to disappear as the technology improves. More importantly, 3D media demand changes in how movies and television and produced. Right now, only computer animated films are expressly produced with the needs of 3D in mind, producing stunningly realistic depth-of-field and fine gradations of perceived depth. Film and video produced according to the traditional rules of 2D creates flat, paper-thin figures moving in a 3D environment that can appear shallow or truncated. Sports coverage, intended to be a killer app for 3D TV, particularly suffers from these issues, and 3D broadcasts of sporting events may require drastic changes to the technology used on the field.

Filmmakers are still learning how to deal with changing depth of focus. In the real world, the viewer chooses unconsciously where to focus their eyes; but in a 3D production this decision is made for the viewer. A plane of focus that appears to constantly shift can give audiences headaches and eye strain. A largely different language of cinema is being developed, to produce content in which 3D is a core component rather than a faddish trinket.

And finally, CNN Tech reports that between four and 10 percent of consumers suffer from something called “stereo blindness,” a sometimes treatable condition that makes it impossible to experience 3D movies or television. This is hardly a deal-killer, but one wonders how the spread of stereo music technology would have been affected if 10% of listeners had not been able to appreciate the difference.

Honestly, how 3D will likely establish its foothold in the living room is not with sports or movies, but with video games. Video gamers are already accustomed to buying expensive high-tech peripherals. They are used to content designed for one person, one screen. And when designed properly, 3D does not just add visual excitement to a game, but actually affects and enhances the gameplay itself.

So will 3D television lure viewers away from legitimate free Internet video, and from illegally pirated video files? It is too soon to tell. But there is a key difference to this strategy, as compared to some of the previously unsuccessful responses to piracy and the Internet. As with Steve Jobs and the iPod, 3D TV producers are offering consumers something new and exciting that, once the issues are worked out, will enhance their news and entertainment experiences. Rather than treating customers like the enemy, they are approaching customers as customers. And iTunes proves that people are more than willing to pay for their media, as long as they can experience a clear benefit.

More info: “Keeping Up With the Napsters” on Village Voice; “Why I can’t watch 3D TV” on CNN Tech; “DirectTV to launch the first 3D HDTV Channel” on Device; “Microsoft Exec Not Sold on 3D Home Gaming” on GameSpy; “3D TV? Too Soon Now, but One Day You Will Want It” on Singularity Hub; “I’m Sold On 3D TVs…And I Kind of Hate Myself For It” on Gizmodo.

2007 was the best year ever — for geeks

Originally posted on GGL Wire 12/29/07.

From left: Peter Jackson, StarCraft II, Neil Gaiman, Lunar X Prize, Steve Jobs

Okay, not really. The best year ever for geeks was 1977, because Star Wars, Close Encounters and the Atari 2600 all came out that year.

But it was a really good year to be a geek. Here are some of the top events, in no particular order, that made 2007 great.

Peter Jackson signs on for The Hobbit

Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins.Ever since the final credit roll on 2003’s The Return of the King, Tolkien fans have waited desperately for the announcement that production would begin on The Hobbit, the prequel to The Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, there was a snag. In March 2005, LOTR director Peter Jackson got into a major legal battle with production company New Line, over the way the LOTR profits were divided. New Line fielded the possibilities of bringing in another director, and Evil Dead director Sam Raimi’s name was bandied around.

It was beginning to look like the two actors you need for The Hobbit, Ian “Bilbo Baggins” Holm and Ian “Gandalf” McKellen, would drop dead of old age before a deal was reached.

But this December, New Line announced that Jackson would executive produce The Hobbit, although someone else might direct. The first part of the two-part film is slated for release in 2010.

Why do we care? Because Jackson’s LOTR trilogy was the best possible film we could have hoped for. It wasn’t perfect (Sauron is NOT an evil lighthouse), but it was beautifully shot, perfectly cast, and brought the book to life magnificently. Jackson is the only person who should be making The Hobbit.

Two Neil Gaiman movies in the same year

Claire Danes in Stardust.It seems Hollywood spent 15 years ignoring Neil Gaiman, the acclaimed British modern fantasy author. In fact, I think it took a generation of Sandman readers growing up, going to film school, and getting jobs before anyone in the film industry took Gaiman seriously.

This year we finally got a film based on a Gaiman story, the critically acclaimed Stardust (based on his 1999 novel); and Beowulf, the film based on the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem, the screenplay co-penned by Gaiman.

Both movies featured Gaiman’s trademark wit, and his singular ability to take ancient mythology and make it relevant to the modern world.

An animated film of Gaiman’s Coraline (the creepiest children’s book you’ll ever read) comes out in 2008.

The iPhone

iPhone.No, I don’t have one, because I’m not made of money. Do you know what games journalists make? Not much. And anyway, you want to wait a year or two on Apple hardware, until the bugs are worked out.

Yeah, that’s the excuse I’m using.

In fact, the iPhone proves that the genius of Apple, since the Macintosh arrived in 1984, is in user interfaces. The iPhone touch-screen is remarkably clear and works great. It’s by far the best handheld unit for web browsing, and all the navigation is controlled through simple finger movements.

Some things about the iPhone suck – it’s crippled with useless DRM, you can only use AT&T, and you can’t play games. But the biggest consumer tech item of the year has lived up to the hype, overall.

StarCraft II announced

StarCraft II.I guess if you’re not part of the e-sports community, nor a real-time strategy addict, then Blizzard’s revelation that they have been working on a StarCraft sequel won’t seem so earth-shattering. But this was the biggest videogaming story of the year.

Blizzard announced StarCraft II at the Worldwide Invitational in Seoul; but it wasn’t until BlizzCon that we got to play it. The game feels just like StarCraft, and the designers are working hard to maintain StarCraft’s perfect game balance.

StarCraft is one of the best games ever written; and certainly the best RTS. No release date is yet set for StarCraft II, but when it comes, the world of e-sports will be turned on its ear. Will Korea lose its dominance in StarCraft? Probably not – but anything can happen….

Earth’s (larger) moon.The Google Lunar X PRIZE

I don’t like the privatization of space. At all. I miss the heroism and tragedy of the original 1960’s NASA space program, its only goal the expansion of human knowledge and exploration. (Well, okay, its only goal was to embarrass the Soviets. But I can opine nostalgic, can’t I?)
But between funding cuts, two shuttle disasters, a less-than-usless international space station, and a ridiculous imbroglio involving adult diapers, NASA is a laughingstock. Which is why, a la Andy Griffith, a community of half-crazy Internet billionaires is taking over.

The Google Lunar X PRIZE (why is “prize” all caps? Got me.) was announced at the Wired NextFest in September. The X PRIZE Foundation is offering $20 million to the team who can successfully land a robot rover on the lunar surface by 2012.

Let’s hope someone succeeds, and that their accomplishment spurs America back into space exploration.

Túrin Turambar wearing the Dragonhelm of Hador.The Children of Húrin published

More good news for fans of Tolkien’s Legendarium. This year Christopher Tolkien reached up his ass and pulled out The Children of Húrin, the first original J.R.R. Tolkien work since The Silmarillion in 1977.

The novel retells the story of Túrin Turambar, the most depressing chapter of The Silmarillion. The tale of Túrin and his sister Nienor was Tolkien’s attempt at Greek tragedy, involving murder, exile and incest; the Túrin of The Silmarillion is a jackass and an idiot, and his “tragic” death is not exactly unwelcome.

But the Túrin Turambar of the longer and more detailed The Children of Húrin is far more likable, which may have been Tolkien’s intention in writing it.

If Tolkien wrote it. I’m sorry, call me a kooky conspiracy theorist, but I’m wary of greatly-delayed posthumous works (I’m looking at you, L. Ron Hubbard). We know that Tolkien and his son Christopher were working together on The Silmarillion when Tolkien died; and Christopher admits that much of the editing on The Silmarillion was his own work.

But if a longer, more complete version of Narn i Chîn Húrin was available all this time, why wait 30 years to publish it? Did Christopher Tolkien have to write some of it, to fill in gaps? Inquiring minds want to know.

Blade Runner director’s cut

Blade Runner.In 1982 one of the best sci-fi films ever hit screens. Blade Runner was an adult (sorry, Star Wars), sophisticated (sorry again, Star Wars) film that presented a bleak future and ask its audience to challenge their own ideas of what it means to be human. And Daryl Hannah was hot.

But the 1982 release was a studio cut; the film had been taken away from director Ridley Scott, and a happy ending was tacked on. Harrison Ford was forced to record voice-over narration, which he hated.

In 1992, Ridley Scott was called on to participate in a director’s cut. The film was re-edited, but not by Scott; the happy ending was removed along with the narration, and footage was reintroduced that suggested Deckard, the main character, was not a human but a Replicant. The problem? The new “Director’s Cut” was released without any involvement from Scott.

That was fixed this year; the new Final Cut version, now on DVD after a brief theatrical re-release, is wholly Ridley Scott’s. Now we can see Blade Runner the way it was meant to be seen.

Hello Kitty for Men

No, seriously. Hello Kitty for Men.

What tremendous geeky events did I miss from 2007? List them in the Comments, or email me.

An open letter to Steve Jobs

Dear Steve,

I was a Mac evangelist for a very long time, but this is my first letter to you. I say that I was a Mac evangelist, rather than that I am one, because my love for your brand has been slowly dying out for many years now.

My complaints have included the following:

  • Hardware-wise, my iMac G5 is an overpriced piece of crap. And instead of having a recall, you waited for my motherboard to fry before offering me a free replacement.
  • Mac OS X is cool and all, but it’s not significantly better than Windows XP, much less Vista.
  • I don’t like paying through the nose for marginal OS updates. I can get widgets for free on a PC — why should I pay $130 for them?
  • Getting help at the Genius Bar is startlingly reminiscent of visiting the DMV.
  • Mac mouses still suck. I was so excited about the Mighty Mouse. “Mighty disappointing” is all I have to say.
  • You killed my Newton.

Apple Newton

But it’s that last crime that wounded me the most. I was a huge Newton fan, an early adopter. I used to lug that enormous brick with me everywhere I went. I loved the handwriting recognition (still better than on any PDA available today). I loved the cool little programs you could download and install. I loved being better than anyone who didn’t own a Newton.

It was a great little machine. Recently, CNET compared the Newton to a modern portable tablet — and the Newton won.

When you, Steve, regained control of Apple in 1997, I thought it was good news. And then you did the unthinkable. You killed the Newton. You murdered the entire product line. It wasn’t your baby, so you wanted nothing to do with it.

My Newton went from Best Gizmo in the World to Useless Hunk of Plastic.

Now, you’ve given the world the iPhone. It’s pretty damn cool — I used one today. Wired Magazine says it’s “surprisingly close to what a current-generation Newton might look like if Jobs hadn’t killed in the line….”

I agree, Steve. I agree.

That’s why I am asking… no, demanding… a Newton for iPhone swap program. Anyone who brings their working Newton into an Apple store can exchange it for a new iPhone. And no, we won’t need a receipt — that’s a cop out.

Reward the early adopters, Steve. The Newton was iPhone v.0. You killed it — let’s bring it back.