Not very long ago, the idea of a 3D movie would conjure up memories of that 1950s photograph showing a theater full of people wearing campy paper glasses with blue and red lenses. Thanks in part to the popularity of IMAX’s recent 3D documentaries, however, the technology may be experiencing a renaissance.
The timing could not have been better for a Montreal manufacturer called SENSIO, which has developed the only MPEG2-compliant (broadcast capable), full-resolution, full-color, 3D home theater system compatible with commercially available DVD players and front projectors.
Although the idea of 3D movies might have been laughable in the past, it has never been a joke to SENSIO’s founders, president Nicholas Routhier and VP of sales and marketing Richard LaBerge, who made the atypical leap from banking to consumer electronics a few years ago.
“In 1999, after an especially hard and disgruntling week, Richard and I went for a walk at lunch,” LaBerge said. “Richard told me how he always wanted to start his own business–preferably consumer electronics. It was then that I talked to him about my 3D idea and how I thought it could be done. Richard said, ‘Enough thinking, let’s do it!’ A few days after that, we started working on the business plan and that’s how it all started.”
LaBerge’s infatuation for 3D, in fact, went back to childhood. “It has been a passion ever since I was a kid. I always liked View Masters, 3D special edition magazines with red and blue glasses, 3D hockey cards, etc., LaBerge said. “In 1987, after seeing Transitions, (the first IMAX 3D film ever made), I thought that everybody should be able to watch 3D at home. Since then, I never stopped looking at ways of making it possible both technologically and commercially.”
Logging long hours and short weekends while still employed in their banking jobs in Montreal, Routhier and LaBerge did extensive research on existing 3D encoding processes, such as anaglyph, color encoding and field sequential; 3D viewing technologies, like red and blue glasses and polarized glasses with silver screens; and the history of 3D moviemaking. The two men realized that their best opportunity for a home 3D technology would be achieved with LCD shutter glasses, but felt that existing encoding technologies lacked the quality that consumers have come to expect. Also, there where no practical ways to retrofit 3D into existing homes. Their research was, therefore, directed toward video encoding and decoding algorithms as well as consumer electronics integration.
Initially, compatibility issues were the most significant hurdles facing Routhier, LaBerge and their VP of R&D, Pierre-Hugues Routhier. “Since our system is all about synchronization–DVD decoding by the DVD player, stereoscopic video processing in the SENSIO3D, stereo projection by the projector and shutter glass switching–we had to make sure that our process was robust enough to survive most, if not all, existing hardware processing,” LaBerge said.
SENSIO also hoped to maintain image quality under very high compression, because the 3D process would require twice as compressed as a regular MPEG2 stream. Additionally, SENSIO’s creators wanted to maintain regular DVD functions such as 3D menus, pause, rewind and fast forward in their 3D mode. The fruit of their labor is the SENSIO3D video processor, which is now the only 3D home theater system designed to work with conventional DVD players and CRT, LCD, DLP and D-ILA projectors. It also is the only system that is MPEG-2 compliant, offering full-screen high-resolution and full-color 3D format and is compatible with future distribution channels such as pay-per-view, video-on-demand, DTV and HDTV broadcasts.
Over time, Technicolor has become a key component in the development of the SENSIO3D format. The company has helped Routhier and LaBerge in understanding the many challenges of film-to-video transfer, particularly when dealing with stereoscopic pictures in various existing formats (see sidebar about over/under, side by side and dual strips methods). SENSIO also is working in conjunction with Technicolor to provide the SENSIO3D formatting service to DVD distributors. This service is a “stereoscopic movie formatting process” that converts 3D movies into the SENSIO3D format for broadcast or storage onto stereoscopic DVDs. The process integrates seamlessly with conventional DVD authoring and a turnkey operation from film to “3DVD” also is available. While SENSIO is in the continual process of building a 3D-film library accessible to SENSIO’s customers, as of May 2003 there were six titles available through the company’s distributors.
As for the processor itself, AudioPlus Services (www.audioplusservices.com) is the North American distributor of SENSIO3D, having helped the company sign on more than 150 dealers thus far. LaBerge believes that such strong early interest in the product is already a testament to the great potential that 3D technology has in the home market.
“Dealers say it is the most exciting new product they have seen in years,” LaBerge explained. “They really believe that they have seen the future of the home theater experience, the next logical step in its development. In audio, you went from mono to stereo to surround and to immersive digital multi-channel. In video, you went from VHS to DVD to immersive SENSIO3D projection!”
LaBerge believes that SENSIO3D also will help high-end dealers differentiate themselves from mass-market retailers. “By having the SENSIO3D processor in their store, they are sure to have something that is totally unique and different from what other stores are currently showcasing,” he said. “As well, by promoting SENSIO3D they will be able to lure their existing client base back to their store to see something totally new, which will help cross selling of new products and improve sales volume.”
But high volume expectations haven’t lead to a “mass-market” attitude from LaBerge and Routhier, when it comes to pricing and the product’s industrial design. The Model S3D-100 processor will cost $2,995 (U.S.) retail and will come with two pairs of wireless shutter glasses, an infrared emitter to synchronize the glasses, a demo DVD and a full-length 3D movie. The processor’s front panel, in turn, is made of eye-catching natural slate with a front “porthole” logo serving a “a window to virtual worlds and immersive new experiences,” according to LaBerge.
“It is our belief that 3D has always been associated with low-quality, novelty, gadgets,” he added. “With our design, we wanted to show the world that 3D has entered a new era and that the SENSIO3D processor has achieved for the home theater what IMAX has done for the movie theater.”
Jeremy Glowacki is editor of Residential Systems.