Category: The Front Line

Alice in 3D Land

Last night, I took my daughter to see Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, presented in 3D at the Regal Cinemas Warrington Crossing multiplex.

Things got off to a bad start when the pre-movie trailers shut down and the digital projector failed to run. The theater manager came out and did a song-and-dance, stalling for time while the projectionist tried to get things running again.The digital projector was a Sony 4K SXRD (LCoS) model, by the way.

About 20 minutes later, the system came to life and we settled back to watch a movie that has grossed an amazing $116M over its opening weekend, despite tepid reviews by several media outlets.

It’s important to note that Alice wasn’t shot in 3D. All of the 3D effects were added later, in post production. And for the opening live action sequences, it was hard to see much in the way of 3D effects using the RealD circular polarized glasses.

Photo Copyright © 2010 Walt Disney Pictures

Things improved somewhat after Alice entered Wonderland and the movie shifted to a mix of live and CG effects and backgrounds. However, the projected image didn’t have as much contrast and snap to it, compared to the showing of Avatar I saw back in December that used a Christie DLP Cinema projector. Black levels were higher than I’d expected, but that’s not surprising – none of the Sony 4K demos I’ve ever seen had really good blacks and low grays.

Tim Burton went berserko with vibrant colors for the Wonderland sequences and those were spectacular to watch.  And the 3D effects got better as the movie wound on. In fact, the most dramatic 3D effect was the closing title sequence, with characters and key credits presented inside a rectangular trellis that I swore was just a few feet in front of me – I even reached out to try and touch it.

The verdict? Alice in Wonderland is indeed entertaining, although a bit slow at times. Many of the 3D effects aren’t all that intense or even perceived. The live action sequences at the start and end of the film are largely flat, and Disney and Burton could have taken a Wizard of Oz approach by leaving those sequences in 2D, requiring the glasses only for the Wonderland sequences.

If you go to see it, head for a theater that uses Christie or Barco DLP projectors. You’ll see a lot more contrast and better color saturation.

Samsung, Panasonic Get a Flying Start on 3D

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, Samsung and Panasonic showed they’re serious about marketing and selling 3D TVs in the United States with some significant product announcements.

Samsung’s press event, held at the Samsung Experience in the Time Warner Center, showcased numerous demos of 3D plasma and LCD TVs.  Content from 3D Blu-ray discs and DirecTV was featured, and DreamWorks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg even stopped by to add his two cents to the proceedings, attracting a crowd of paparazzi along the way.

In the LCD line, the LN46C750 (CCFL) will be first out of the gate with 3D support and 240Hz image processing. It is expected to retail for $1q,700 and will be in stores in May. Over in the LED BL LCD line, eight models ranging in size from 40 to 55 inches will handle 3D playback, starting with the $1,999 UN40C7000 and topping out with the 55-inch UN55C9000.  Look for shipments to start in March with selected models.

Here’s the UN46C9000 in action, showing 3D content from DirecTV.

Plasma is still part of the 3D equation at Samsung, and six new PDP TVs are ready to deliver 3D. The 63-inch PN63C8000 sits at the top of the line and will set you back $3,800 (May 2010), while the 50-inch PN-50C7000 can be yours fro just $1,800 (also May 2010).

Got Blu-ray? The BD-C6900 is BD3D compatible and ready to deliver the goods (which is a neat trick, considering that Silicon Image just finalized the HDMI 1.4 delivery formats last week!) for $399. It should show up later this month. Each 3DTV and the Blu-ray player will  come with one pair of active shutter glasses. (Samsung is also running a limited-time promotion with two pairs of glasses and a 3D BD copy of Monsters Vs. Aliens with each new TV.)

On Wednesday, Panasonic unveiled its first 3D TV entry, the 50-inch TC-V50PT20 ($2,499). This set will come with one pair of active shutter glasses.  Larger models will be rolled out as the year progresses, and there aren’t any plans currently for 42-inch or 46-inch 3D models. (No surprise, considering how inexpensive 50-inch glass has become!)

There’s also a new Blu-ray player, the BDT-300. It will retail for $399 at Best Buy. Want the TV, player, and glasses? You can have the lot for $2,900.

It should be noted that plasma TVs have always had the ability to switch at the high speeds required for 3D (120 Hz)..they just haven’t had the correct interface and HDMI 1.4 support. LCD TVs that process at 240Hz can also juggle a 3D signal nicely. (For that matter, so can 120 Hz sets, but the faster refresh rate does a cleaner job with motion detail.)

It’s possible that many of these sets will be purchased and not used for 3D viewing right away, as consumers want to “future-proof” themselves. Considering how few Blu-ray players are on the market, it’s probably not a bad idea to wait a few months until more product is on the shelves and the market figures out pricing.

Here’s an actual side-by-side 1080i video frame from DirecTV.

As for DBS and cable-delivered 3D, you’ll need an upgraded set-top box with HDMI 1.4 support to view the side-by-side 3D content that most networks are likely to use. DirecTV has already stated its intention to use side-by-side, while ESPN is still in the planning stages.

Keep in mind that both side-by-side and top/bottom 3D delivery formats cut resolution in half. Side by side slices horizontal resolution, while top/bottom pares vertical resolution. For a 1080i image, that means 960×1080 pixels in each eye, while the 720p format gets whacked down to 640×720 pixels per eye…not much better than a DVD.

In contrast, the Blu-ray format delivers two complete 1920×1080 progressive frames (left eye on top, and right eye below) with a blanking interval of about 40 – 45 pixels. So you can expect 3D content from Blu-ray to look much better than network content.

WABC, Cablevision Kiss and Make Up. Who’s Next?

Disney-owned TV station WABC made good on its threat early Sunday morning to pull its signal from Cablevision systems in New York and northern New Jersey after a dispute over retransmission fees could not be resolved amicably. But the two companies reached an agreement about 15 minutes into the Oscars telecast, restoring the signal just as the nominees for Best Supporting Actor were announced.

According to several published news reports, WABC was seeking a fee of $1 per subscriber, whereas Cablevision was countering with 25 cents per sub. Supposedly, the companies arrived at a figure in the range of 60 cents per sub, although that can’t be confirmed right now.

In a similar battle last December, the Fox network duked it out with Time-Warner, asking for $1 per sub but reportedly getting about half that in the final negotiations. It’s expected that Disney (the owner of ABC and ESPN) will play even harder ball against Time Warner in August, when those cable carriage agreements come up for renewal.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Cablevision subscribers, what with the Academy Awards telecast on Sunday. But it didn’t mean all was lost – it just meant folks would have to try and pull in the signal on channel 7 using an old-fashioned antenna.

WABC’s signal is quite strong down here in Bucks County, PA and I can receive it with a five-element VHF yagi plus a mast-mounted preamplifier, mounted about five feet above my roof . The straight-line path from here to the Empire State Building is about 65 miles, and there are two ranges of hills in the way.

Here's my rooftop antenna system, aimed at New York City. The lower antenna does a great job pulling in WABC-7.

So I’d expect almost anyone who is 30 miles or less from Empire with a reasonably clear path will be able to pull in WABC’s HD signal, using an outside antenna. Within 15 miles, you may only need an indoor antenna, preferably one that can be rotated and has a switchable amplifier built-in.

Get used to these retransmission fee disputes – you’re going to hear more about them with each passing year, as TV stations move away from the old “must carry” system – where a local station had to be carried on the cable system, but received no money for that carriage – to retransmission agreements, which place a value of the TV station’s content.

Traditional TV networks are realizing their programs are worth just as much (if not more) than that offered by cable nets like USA, TBS, and TNT. And with advertising revenue down, thanks to the recession, those per-subscriber fees are becoming vitally important.

TiVo’s Got A New Box Up Its Sleeve

Last night, TiVo held a coming-out party for the TiVo Premiere, the latest in a series of DVRs that can receive and record content from cable, terrestrial, and broadband TV.

The event, held atop Rockefeller Center, featured CEO Tom Rogers bantering with 30 Rock’s Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer) while Rogers listed the new functions and menu designs. The “premiere” of Premiere wasn’t a very well-kept secret – some Best Buy employees leaked specs and pricing information in late February.

Tom Rogers gives us the skinny on TiVo’s Premiere. Ironically, Rogers used to be an NBC executive!

What was significant about the event was the announcement that cable overbuilder and MSO RCN will offer Premiere as an option to its customers. TiVo’s DVR, although a great product in design and execution, has long suffered from a lack of content delivery partners.

At one time, the company had a partnership with DirecTV, but that went by the wayside. Partnering with RCN, even though the latter is a small player in the world of cable TV, will help drive acceptance and sales considerably.

The Premiere – which actually comes in two flavors – is a slimmer, sleeker version of the current Series 3 and HD DVRs, both of which will be discontinued. The basic Premiere offers 45 hours of recording for $300, while the XL version triples that capacity to 150 hours for a couple hundred extra dollars.

TiVo’s Premiere DVR is even thinner than the TiVo HD.

As configured, Premiere offers a ‘triple play’ of terrestrial, cable, and broadband video recording and playback. (Sorry, no DirecTV or Dish support!) There is a single M-style CableCARD slot which allows bi-directionality for video on demand (VOD) services. But Premiere isn’t ready to replace tru2way yet…not that the latter bi-directional cable platform has been setting the world on fire exactly.

Wireless connectivity is based on 802.11n protocols, and you can link Premiere with older Series 3 and HD units to share recorded shows and files on the same home media network. TiVo has also added broadband content sites Pandora and FrameChannel (over 1,000 widgets and counting) to existing Netflix, Blockbuster on Demand, and Amazon services. (Sorry, still no connections to Hulu!).

For the first time that I know of, Adobe’s Flash player has been incorporated into a set-top box (hey, who puts these things on top of TV sets anymore?). Premiere makes extensive use of Flash in its menus and video preview windows.

There are also new Search parameters that take you more quickly to a given actor’s resume, lets you search by such arcane topics as “Oscar-nominated movies,” and in general lets you REALLY drill down to find out everything you want about a particular TV show or movie, and the people who directed and acted in it.

Premiere’s new mernus make extensive use of Flash.

TiVo also showed its latest remote controls that incorporate a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Those readers who have suffered with the directional arrows and Select button to type in keywords for program searches should be deliriously happy with that development!

Here’s the new QWERTY remote. Hooray!

I’ve had TiVo service since 1999, and just retired my first Series 1 Philips DVR, which had enough capacity to record a whopping 14 hours of standard-definition TV. (It still works, even with the dial-up phone connection for program guide info!) I also have a pair of Humax Series 2 combo DVD/DVR boxes sitting in hibernation, now that Comcast has gone all-digital.

So I’m looking forward to test-driving a Premiere and seeing how it compares to my workhorse TiVo HD, which records both digital cable and terrestrial HD signals and has downloaded several TV shows in HD from Amazon’s Unbox service. Look for a review later this spring when TiVo starts shipping.

Best Buy will be the exclusive brick-and-mortar retail outlet for Premiere, and it will also be available from Amazon. The Wireless-N adapter will start shipping in May.

Don’t ask this guy to program your Tivo, though…

Wal-Mart Buys VuDu. What does it mean?

On Monday, February 22, Wal-Mart announced it was buying the movie download service VUDU.

The announcement, which was a bit of a surprise, nevertheless makes sense in light of Wal-Mart’s 2009 decision to downplay in-store sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs. Now, Wal-Mart can deliver HD-quality movies directly to a variety of compatible TVs and media players, including LG’s new BD590 player/DVR.

According to a Business Week story, a VUDU executive said he expects the VUDU platform to be integrated into more than 150 TVs and related AV products in 2010. This is significant because VUDU picture quality tends to be higher than iTunes and Netflix streaming video. In fact, many VUDU movies can be downloaded in the 1080p/24 format for true HD playback.

VUDU’s original set-top box

This move also pits Wal-Mart directly against Apple, Amazon, and Netflix as demand for digital downloads of TV shows and movies heats up.

So – what does that mean for packaged media sales? DVD sales continued their slide last year, falling off 13% from 2008, according to Adams Media Research. Even the Blu-ray format hasn’t proven compelling enough to reverse this trend, which many analysts still blame on the economy.

I’ve got three more sensible explanations. First off, DVD rentals are still hanging in there, which means more consumers have decided they really don’t need to buy every movie or TV show boxed set out there. Renting once is just fine, particularly if you have a $1-per-night Redbox DVD kiosk in your local grocery store.

Second, there just aren’t that many memorable movies out there from recent years that are worth owning. And if you’ve already accumulated RL or BD copies of the ‘classics’ plus some boxed sets here and there, why continue to fill up your shelves with more DVDs that will likely still be sitting in their original shrink wrap a year later?

Third, it’s pretty clear that the public is captivated by broadband video. That includes video-on-demand over cable, Hulu, Netflix streaming, Amazon digital downloads, and YouTube.  Granted, mailing Netflix and Blockbuster movies back and forth is pretty convenient (although Netflix spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year to make that happen!).

But pointing your remote at the TV and downloading a movie or TV show is even more convenient (and cheaper for Netflix). And if you have access to thousands of movie titles and TV shows at the click of a button, why do you need to fill up your shelves at home with DVDs you might watch one time, then consign to a garage sale or your local library?

Wal-Mart is betting that you don’t, and that direct downloads are what you crave. And they want a piece of that action.