3-D and Immersive Content Could Help Cable, Streamers

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Emerging multidimensional "viewing experiences" and resurgent 3-D technology are giving cable operators, Internet-service providers and multimedia companies a panoramic view of potentially lucrative new revenue sources.

Spherical cameras, walking-and-talking avatars (characters), fully three-dimensional streaming video and "immersive" angles and views designed to take consumers deep into Web sites, commercials and promotions are getting the attention of multimedia companies as the competition for consumers'time and money intensifies.

Internet and TV users now demand a compelling and technologically thrilling journey through a PC or TV Web site.

For multimedia companies to attract and hold fickle customers, 3-D technology and "reality-based" experiences are evolving into valuable components in their efforts to cut through the technological clutter and leave an unforgettable, "sticky" impression.

"One differentiator for cable operators and multiservice providers is 3-D technology. It has a reaction on the wow'level, and more companies are getting the message," said Thom Kidrin, the president and CEO of Worlds.com, a creator of 3-D interactive content.

Worlds.com is one of a growing stable of 3-D and multidimensional technology companies vying for space in the burgeoning Internet and Web markets. This is a space where cable operators are expected to play as they expand their Internet and data services and chase market share, which emerging companies such as Worlds.com are counting on, albeit in due time.

"For cable, as it rushes to wire homes with modems and broadband capabilities, it's looking for content that separates it from competitors like phone companies and pulls users deeper into Internet and TV Web sites, which can translate to higher upsells, TV-show samples and promotions," Kidrin said. "But demand will require compelling, creative content with a buzz."

Worlds.com, he added, is providing 3-D technology to high-speed online service Road Runner, and it delivers its 3-D service via broadband and interactive cable networks at a cost of between $25,000 and $100,000 for creative content development.

The 3-D buzz is reaching the set-top market, as well. Dynamic Digital Depth Inc. is creating software decoders for Motorola Broadband Communications Sector's "DCT 5000+" boxes. It allows users to view in 2-D or 3-D by choosing an "on" or "off" format-image switch and using a $30 pair of 3-D glasses.

"The conventional ways of broadcasting call for sequential frames and formatting. We've moved out of that," DDD CEO Chris Yewdall said.

DDD's "Deep See" technology, Yewdall said, digitally scans images to see what 3-D depth is used in 2-D images, and it then converts them to 3-D. "It used to take a special 3-D camera with two lenses-one for each eye. Now we can convert the same images to 3-D from traditional 2-D images," he added.

Charter Communications Inc. and AT & T Broadband have both ordered set-top boxes with DDD technology, Yewdall said, but a wider rollout is a work in progress. "The whole process of integrating this technology with broadcasting is complex. Decoders and encoders must function, and billing aspects must be integrated with 3-D technology," he added.

The Internet is a different story, though. Said Yewdall: "There are 118 million registered Internet users with the capability of watching 3-D tomorrow without going through regional cable operators. So when DDD rolls out to broadcast networks and cable, we'll be able to point to some clear uptakes from the Internet data we gather."

Just how impressive those uptakes will be is debatable. But Motorola is betting on the upside.

"Operators want the ability to bring in more content, and they see 3-D as a means to do that. They can hook consumers into activities, and it increases the advertising opportunities to launch into purchases. That's why we put the DDD engine into our DCT 5000+," said Denton Kanouff, vice president of marketing for digital-network systems at Motorola.

Internet Pictures Corp.'s "iPIX"-a 3-D multidimensional technology player, in which AT & T Corp. is the largest investor-calls its 360-degree "immersive imaging" movie technology the "Holy Grail of broadband. It's actual, reality-based photography and digital video that captures the world as you see it-3-D alters that, iPIX doesn't," iPIX senior vice president of corporate development Ed Lewis said.

What this could mean for multimedia and Internet providers, Lewis insisted, is the "stickiness" they're demanding from their Web sites and content.

"Ultimately, if broadband providers expect people to sign up for new services, experiences must be different for the users. Multidimensional technology can provide sticky'content that keeps subscribers longer, drives them deeper into the sites and increases transaction velocity," he added.

The velocity of 3-D and immersive imaging is moving the technologies closer to mainstream companies, as well.

Broadcom Corp., for example, recently acquired Stellar Semiconductor Inc., a developer of

3-D graphics technology, to enhance the company's content offerings in set-top boxes.

"PixelSquirt," Stellar's 3-D technology, can save up to 80 percent of lower-memory bandwidth and 66 percent of the smaller memory size needed in traditional architectures, Stellar CEO Sandeep Gupta said.

"We have a parallel processing engine, and we figured out all of the triangles that are in front that comprise one pixel. Then we create a final surface. With the optimized use of available memory, we're able to do 32-bit quality at 16-bit pricing," he explained.

PixelSquirt breaks down 3-D surfaces into triangles, with some surfaces being hidden and others showing up in color, and it eventually shows only the final visible pixels. "It allows us to add 3-D graphics from a systems point of view without lots of additional system costs, like memory," Broadcom director of marketing Rich Nelson said.

The emergence of sticky and immersive imaging technologies such as 3-D and other multidimensional concepts as incentives for the growing number of Internet and TV Web users to stay online is prompting companies such as iMove Inc. to merge into multimedia, as well.

The company produces full-motion panoramic video that allows viewers to see and hear 360 degrees in any direction. Its one-of-a-kind spherical camera also allows viewers to see advertisements, promotions, merchandise and movies via PCs and set-top boxes.

"It's Web-focused now, and we're working with Web providers that are including interactive elements that allow for much greater stickiness," iMove chief technology officer Dave Ripley said.

Its spherical camera uses six lenses that literally capture everything in view, and it records multiple video streams that can allow for interactive "hot spots" and integration with digital subscriber lines, cable modems, T-1 and others.

Integrating 3-D and other "dimensional" technologies into delivery systems isn't top of mind for most cable operators yet, experts said. And despite the apparent popularity of immersive imaging technologies such as 3-D and "reality-based" viewing, most observers agreed that there is a long way to go before they'll have a significant impact.

Said Kidrin: "There's lots being done, but it's not integrated. For instance, Pokemon videos aren't connected to merchandise. The media can now control the whole entertainment-merchandise chain with an integrated approach. But media companies are grappling with those implications."

In the meantime, 3-D and other dimensional technologies are expected to seep into digital set-top boxes and other delivery systems, and could provide a more meaningful Internet and TV Web experience, leading to a whole new dimension in advertising, promotions and merchandising opportunities.

Concluded Kanouff: "The platforms are there, and in the next three months, more 3-D-type applications will occur. Now, content is needed."

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