22 May 2012
Are we set to move beyond 3d tv into another viewing dimension?
The next generation of television viewing seems set to escape the screen one way or another – either through 3d effects or by exploring the notion of what a screen actually is. Breaking down barriers between users and the content they enjoy seems to be the key theme, and with OLED just around the corner, these technologies may soon merge.
Simon Parnall, vice president of technology at NDS, a provider of software solutions for the pay tv industry, used the analogy of a world before television to illustrate his vision for the future. Imagine how a Victorian family would have spent their Saturday nights together; there's a warm fire crackling away and an elderly relative sitting in the corner knitting. Instead of flicking through channels, somebody is working on a jigsaw. Rather than playing on their smartphone, somebody else is completing a crossword. The sewing machine is exciting, not the iPad.
Parnall's point was that everybody in the room could be doing something different, but would be sharing the experience. TV may have introduced an aspect of artificiality to the way we view content because it demands a singular relationship. Parnall believes people like to be together, but not always doing the same thing. This idea of breaking down barriers could shape the next generation of screens.
The first way to escape the limitations of the screen is through 3d, which Parnall considers a 'fundamental differentiator' in the way people view content. These systems work by showing our eyes two different images and tricking our brains into perceiving depth. Active and passive systems do this by requiring the users to wear glasses, which either use lcd shutters or polarisation. Both technologies have their advantages, but as Parnall summarised: "It's a trade off between the price of the glasses and the price of the screen."
A third option is glasses-less 3d, which uses a lenticular display. A prism on the surface of the screen causes the left eye to see a slightly different image to the right because they're seeing different sides of the shape. More facets on the prism mean more viewing 'sweet spots' for the audience.
Parnall believes each system may well compete for marketshare, but they can all succeed in parallel. "This isn't going to be a VHS vs Betamax moment because all three work with the same input."
For industrial applications, accuracy is vital, especially in medical procedures, where 3d scanners are already being used. Parnall commented: "Industrially, 3d is profoundly useful and all of these technologies can be applied there. Glasses technology, giving you the best quality pictures, is likely to be dominant."
Consent is an issue for consumers who may not wish to wear a clunky headset and Parnall feels that glasses-less 3d tv is the right approach socially. "Television, as a group activity, is one where you're looking at each other. If I look at you and all I can see is this black thing on the front of your face, the only relationship you have there is with the screen, not with each other." This social element could shape the future of how consumers view content.
Glasses-less tv is expensive though. Toshiba's ZL2 tv costs £7000, which some may feel is a tad much just to watch Avatar without a headset. However, that might be money well spent for advertisers who could exploit the evocative effect of 3d digital signage. Parnall said: "The only route for signage is probably through glasses-less technology. You could say that £7000 is a lot of money, but it's not for an advertiser. Is there a market? You bet."
As 3d becomes more popular, new guidelines for good practice will have to be written for content. Too many scenes with objects flying out the screen could be jarring for the user and there's the question of where do the subtitles go? This is in addition to the big technological hurdle of positioning the viewer so they get the best experience. Parnall noted: "Just as the technology has evolved, so will the artform of using the technology."
It's all part of learning a new language that is still being formed. This language also applies to how the user controls what they're seeing. In films, human/machine interaction is invariably depicted by dramatic gestures because it is designed to be seen in the third person. In reality, holding your hand in the air to change a channel would be uncomfortable. Parnall said: "It looks great on film, but place yourself in that situation and you've got what I regarded as a punishment at school."
Indeed, there might not be just one person in control. This is the beginning of Parnall's vision of surfaces. "We believe that technology will allow screens to become four things: frameless; unobtrusive; ultra high definition; and ambient."
Like tiles on a wall, tv will match the space available to blend in with the furniture and the frame will no longer define the shape or size of the content. "It's TV that lives with you," said Parnall. The vision is of a client server architecture that allows users to engage at the level that suits them and move content between surfaces without shouting or waving their arms about. To function, this would integrate touch control, gesture and voice recognition technology. Transparent displays are currently in development and 4K promises to take resolution beyond HD. A prototype system uses monitors with 5mm bezels, but OLEDs could offer a bezel width of near zero.
The prototype uses a single, six output computer with software built on standard HTML5 technologies. Two separate surfaces are each driven by their own client, which then interact with the layout and synchronisation server(s) to ensure a consistent experience across the surfaces. Audio is driven from only one surface to simplify the architecture. To fully explore multiple surfaces, a new architecture could render the graphics and video on more than one independent device and use synchronisation between the rendering devices.
"What we're considering in surfaces is that vision of a family of five sitting in front of the screen on a Saturday night enjoying a show with all sorts of different opportunities to have parallel activities going on."
The result could mean that around the programme on screen might be social media feeds, additional information about the person you're seeing or even the song they're singing; options to vote, purchase associated products or assess other people's reactions. This level of immersion would be fully controllable and people could interact individually with the meta data that interests them by using devices like tablets and smartphones.
"The great thing about surfaces," said Parnall, "is that you rediscover that people can have different modes of activity with something."
The dynamic presented by surfaces may sound familiar from the Victorian household analogy and the relationship between cohesion and independence is exciting because we may soon be able to rediscover a social side to home entertainment that has long been absent. Both the technological and the sociological implications are huge.
As Parnall concluded: "It's the ability for a family to be together and share in something, yet have their own experiences – it's personal, yet collective. We think that's a very important aspect of television."