In continuation of our coverage of 3D home entertainment we had a chance to speak to Coleman Washington, President and CEO for Aspen Media Products, LLC. Coleman has 36 years of experience leading teams to create and bring to market new products and services that set the standard for innovation, ease-of-use, and value. Aspen designs and builds a family of 3D Ready multi-media digital players for the home entertainment, education, business, and PC gaming markets. During CES 2010 earlier this year, it introduced its 5th generation of media players and 3rd generation of 3D media players, which are specifically designed to support the full range of 3D video and audio formats and technologies. Aspen is a privately held Texas based Limited Liability Company founded in 2005.
Bijan Tehrani: How does 3-D work on TV?
Coleman Washington: First, let’s talk about how 3D is presented to the viewer. To create the depth required to ‘extend’ the flat 2D presentation of a TV, projector, or computer monitor to appear 3D, 2 different images are alternately projected – one to each eye of the viewer – which causes the picture to appear fuzzy unless the viewer is wearing a pair of 3D glasses. The 3D glasses actually alternate the images to the correct eye. John Oliver, Aspen’s CTO, will explain the technology behind all of this in his interview with you later. But the best and most cost-effective method to alternate images is to use a 3D ready TV, projector, or computer monitor that communicates with active 3D glasses to synchronize the images displayed to either eye. XpanD, Aspen’s 3D glasses partner, is the global leader in active 3D glasses. They currently offer glasses that work with Texas Instruments’ DLPLink 3D synchronization communications, which is used by Mitsubishi 3D Ready TVs and almost all 3D Ready projectors, representing the largest installed base of 3D ready TVs and projectors in the world today. XpanD also has IR glasses that work with an external emitter, which it will be replacing soon with universal IR 3D glasses that will support all of the new 3D Ready TVs that use embedded IR emitters.
With that background I’ll answer how does 3D work on a TV from the perspective of viewing from home or on a TV capable computing device using the current delivery methods of live broadcast, which includes over-the-air, satellite, and cable TV, as well as broadband Internet, or recorded content. Recorded content includes 3D DVDs / Blu-ray 3D, which will be available by this year’s holiday season, and recorded 3D video such as movie downloads, taped broadcast, or personal video clips.
For live broadcast 3D, you need to have a 3D capable TV or projector, 3D glasses, 3D viewer software, which is commonly referred to as a stereoscopic player, 3D player or set-top box, an over-the-air, satellite, cable, or Internet connection to a 3D delivery source, and 3D broadcast content, such as the upcoming FIFA World Cup, for which selected matches are being broadcast over selected satellite and cable providers as well as being streamed over the Internet. The availability of broadcast and streaming 3D is being driven by content, which for the near-term will be major sporting events, such as the FIFA World Cup and this year’s Masters and films, such as Avatar when it is released in 3D for the home market. The key to broad availability of 3D is using the current broadcast and Internet networks, both of which use single channel capability – this means that the alternating images delivered to the TV must both use the single channel rather than 2 separate channels, one for each image. Sensio, an Aspen partner, has developed and patented a way to do this, which means your current over-the-air, satellite, cable, or Internet connection will be able to deliver 3D content. This simplifies delivery of 3D content, but still means you need all the other parts I mentioned.
The primary difference for using a 3D ready computer monitor to view 3D is that the significant majority of 3D ready computers do not support over-the-air, satellite, or cable connections, which means you can only receive 3D broadcast content over the Internet. In addition to the 3D Ready monitor, you still need 3D glasses, 3D viewer software, and obviously 3D content.
For recorded 3D content, you need to either have a 3D capable DVD optical drive – or as I mentioned earlier a 3D capable Blu-ray optical drive, which should be available by this year’s holiday season, or you can download and save 3D content on a hard drive then play it back in 3D. Again, you will need a 3D Ready TV, projector, or computer monitor, 3D glasses, 3D viewer software, and 3D content.
Some systems also have the capability to convert 2D recorded content to 3D during playback. The quality for this depends upon the lighting and quality of the recording. For example, scenes that have a lot of light, or have been produced using digital techniques – light is still a major factor – will convert much more effectively, delivering a fairly good 3D presentation. In addition to a 3D Ready TV, projector, or computer monitor, and 3D glasses, you will need 2D to 3D conversion software, which also typically includes the 3D software viewer. There are 3 software firms who Aspen works with that have released or will release this conversion software. We’re working closely with all three and so far each has strengths for specific uses that differentiate them.
BT: The consumer market is very confusing at this time because there are so many products that claim to be 3-D ready when they really are not. Then there is the issue with glasses, so the 3-D TV idea can easily become confusing to the consumer. Can you simplify the process for the average customer?
CW: Yes. Aspen introduced our 1st 3D media players in 2007, which made us one of the early providers, and we released our 3rd generation at CES this last January, so we have a lot of experience in not only integrating everything that is needed to deliver 3D, but more importantly, we understand what it takes to deliver 3D and set it up. We actively help our partners and their customers understand what is needed, how to set it up, and use it, working to take the confusion and mystery out of it.
The challenge that people who want 3D face is that almost every other vendor in the market is focused around their single piece of what is required to enjoy 3D, so those vendors do not really understand what it takes or how to present it to their customers. Consequently the marketing hype takes over – the most common of which we run into during customer, or even dealer calls, is that they have a 3D Ready TV or projector and believe that if they buy 3D glasses they can view everything in 3D. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason I took so much time on my first answer was to give people an idea of what it takes to enjoy 3D. This will evolve over time, and Aspen is making significant strides to simplify it into a easy solution so that as long as the content is 3D or can effectively be converted from 2D to 3D, customers will really enjoy 3D.
BT: What are the differences between a Blu-ray, a DVD player, and 3-D Ready Blu-ray player?
CW: The difference between a Blu-ray and DVD player is definition – a Blu-ray player is High Definition or HD and a proprietary format, while a DVD player is Standard Definition or SD and more of an open format. 3D Ready Blu-ray players should be available by this year’s holiday season and will become the primary HD 3D format for the near-term. However, over the next few years you will likely see an open digital format evolve that will deliver an even higher definition than Blu-ray, and because it will be open, it will be more flexible and cheaper than Blu-ray. By the way, because of their proprietary format, Blu-ray formatted HD content cannot be converted to 3D, whereas DVD content can.
BT: Are there many different 3-D technologies out there or is there only one?
CW: It’s probably better to think about this from the viewing experience perspective, which entails two parts. The first is whether it is HD or SD – obviously HD provides a greater pallet for the eye to enjoy and enhances 3D presentation – 1080p is the current HD standard for 3D Ready TVs, while 720p is the HD standard for 3D Ready projectors – there are a few very high-end, very expensive 1080p 3D Ready projectors, but they cost well over $10,000. I believe you will see mass market priced 1080p 3D Ready projectors introduced sometime in 2011, which will be a very compelling value. By the way, on the matter of cost for 3D Ready TVs, they have very quickly fallen to be only about 15% higher than their comparable HD technology such as plasma, LED, or LCD. The second is that it is stereoscopic – the alternating image to each eye format, which is what all of the new 3D Ready TVs and projectors use – this is dramatically better than the original 3D presentation that used different color lenses, different polarity lenses for each eye, or rotating lights to separate what was viewed by each eye to create 3D.
There are several different methods in which Stereoscopic 3D or S3D is delivered to 3D Ready TVs, projectors, and computer monitors, but these really are more for the underlying delivery of the 3D signal and for the most part the viewer will not really be aware of them. Again, I’ll leave the technical description of this to John Oliver, Aspen’s CTO, during his interview.
BT: Who were the pioneers of the 3D home entertainment market?
CW: The first two players to enter the 3D Ready TV market were Samsung – I believe in late 2007 – and Mitsubishi, I believe in 2007. Samsung didn’t achieve the success it wanted and left the market fairly quickly; however, Mitsubishi stayed the course and now has several million 3D Ready TVs installed in the US market. Mitsubishi partnered with Texas Instruments to use its DLPLink 3D synchronization communications and XpanD’s DLPLink 3D glasses to deliver excellent 3D price-performance in today’s market. But remember my answer to your first question about how does 3D work for TV, there are other components required to view 3D.
BT: The very first 3D broadcast I am aware of will be the FIFA World Cup by ESPN. If someone has a 3D Ready TV or projector will they be able to watch these games in 3D?
CW: First, there have been a number of earlier 3D TV broadcasts, all of which were major sports events – for example, the BCS National Championship several years ago, and this year Premier League Football – soccer for your US readers. However, these all required dual channels to be delivered so they were either setup for viewing in theaters, or selected Pubs in the case of Premier League Football, using special dual channel transmission. ESPN 3D is using Senio’s single channel capability to broadcast this year’s FIFA World Cup as carried by selected satellite and cable providers in the US and around the world. Additionally, there are several Internet broadcast sources that will stream selected games in 3D over the Internet, which if you have a 3D Ready TV with one of Aspen’s 3D media players attached you would be able to watch as Aspen provides all of the other components required including 3D glasses from XpanD.
In the US, there is a select group who are driving broadcast 3D – from the content or production side you have ESPN 3D, Discovery, and DirecTV – from the delivery or broadcast side you have DirecTV and Comcast who have been very active and they were just joined by AT&T U-verse with its recent announcement that it will offer ESPN 3D in time for the FIFA World Cup. Interestingly, the Middle East has become a hot bed for 3D as well with several content and broadcast sources introducing service with their 3D broadcast of this year’s FIFA World Cup.
BT: For the people who have Aspen 3D players, will they be able to stream the games online?
CW: Aspen 3D players can stream 3D from the Internet and play it on their 3D Ready TV or projector, so for the games that are streamed over the Internet in 3D you will be able to connect to a web site that is streaming a game in 3D and watch it using the XpanD 3D glasses included with your Aspen 3D Player. For our customers who have 3D service from their cable provider and your Aspen 3D player is attached using a TV tuner, you should also be able to view the games broadcast in 3D on your 3D Ready TV or projector – please call us to make sure you are setup properly. Really??
BT: As far as the channels broadcasting 3D movies, will people without 3D Ready TV’s, projectors, or glasses experience any hazy or distorted picture quality?
CW: Typically what would happen is that if you are on a 3D channel, it probably will not play on your non-3D Ready TV or projector. However, if it does play, the picture may be fuzzy.
BT: What is advantage of using Aspen’s 3D players VS using the new Blu-ray 3D players that recently have been announced?
CW: Aspen’s 3D media players are not only 3D Ready, but they are excellent multi-media centers providing single room and whole home solutions that support playing, recording / playback, and cataloging of HD TV, video, audio, photos, and PC gaming, as well as Internet access, including easy access to NetFlix, Pandora, YouTube, Facebook, social media sites, and other websites. Of course Aspen in addition to playing 3D DVD & Blu-ray, when it is available, also provides 3D Internet Streaming, 3D PC gaming, 2D to 3D conversion of recorded movies, TV, videos, photos, and Internet content such as Google Earth and Bing Virtual Earth. Additionally, for homeowners who have Crestron, AMX, or HAI home automation and entertainment systems installed, Aspen simply integrates with them to provide easy TV access and control of all of their capabilities using your TV remote.
BT: Is Aspen system operated by a remote control?
CW: Yes, for ease-of-use and user familiarity, we focused our design around being able to control any of our players using eight standard navigation keys for a remote – on / off, home, select, up / down, forward / back, and back page. All of our players have a keyboard and mouse – most have a wireless keyboard with integrated mouse – that enables you to easily surf the Internet on your TV and simply download, store, and play back content using your Aspen 3D player.
BT: What resolutions do the Aspen’s 3D players support?
CW: Aspen’s 3D players all support the full range of HD up to and including 1080p, and those that have Blu-ray optical drives installed are all software upgradable to Blu-ray 3D when it becomes available – in fact, we already have beta Blu-ray 3D software in house for testing. This is a good example of how we future proof our customers’ purchase by designing all of our players to be remotely upgraded using software.
BT: Is the output HDMI?
CW: All of our 3D players support HDMI as well as DisplayPort, which is the emerging connection technology for computer and gaming monitors.
BT: As far as the future of 3D, are you in any way involved in the upcoming 3D network?
CW: We’re not involved in it as this is being driven by a consortium of large vendors who will focus on their proprietary solution, which will not necessarily be in the best interests of the general viewing audience. Our design objective is to be agnostic, supporting all current 3D technology and vendors in the market today so that our 3D Players will work with all 3D Ready TVs and projectors either currently in the market or that will be delivered in the future.
BT: How do you see the future of 3D on the Internet and Television?
CW: What will happen is that the acceptance of 3D will be driven by major sports events such as the FIFA World Cup and highly successful films such as Avatar. With the apparent success of the FIFA World Cup being broadcast in 3D following on the heels of the interest generated by The Masters being streamed in 3D over the Internet, you will see all of the major sporting events move to 3D. Can you imagine the immersive experience of 3D viewing from the inside of a NASCAR or Indy racecar? What about the use of a 3D helmet cam for football or snow boarding? Then consider the impact of Avatar. Cameron really set the stage in terms of his investment in 3D, but his investment paying off as almost every major new film being announced today is in 3D. In a couple of years every film released will be in 3D, both because of demand and the production cost will drop to be the same as 2D. As 3D productions costs are driven down by sporting events and films, while they also drive up demand, broadcast TV will move to 3D for shows that are similarly compelling to viewers.
BT: How many people can watch 3D using your 3D player?
CW: Aspen’s 3D player will support as many people who can comfortably fit and view the 3D screen in a room as long as each one has 3D glasses. The real answer depends upon the size of the room and the quality of the 3D glasses. For example, XpanD’s 3D glasses provide twice the viewing distance of all other active 3D glasses, so they would be able to support a larger number of people in a larger room.
BT: Do your 3D players come with glasses?
CW: Yes, all of our 3D players come with XpanD 3D glasses. We have found that because people are buying 3D to view sporting and movies, which they do with friends and family, most are buying an additional four to six pair of 3D glasses.