CEATEC 2009: Panasonic's 3D seminar lacks depth but comes up with all the standard answers
(Caution: the following may cause dizziness)
Like it or not, 3D TV is coming, and soon. The CEATEC 2009 show has 3D firmly on the front-burner – a burner 30% more energy efficient than last year's, of course... – with even those companies not building their stands around it having a 3D demo somewhere to be found.
Sony's and Panasonic's 3D technologies dominate their stands, Sharp has a booth with a 60in LED-lit LCD screen showing 3D, and even Toshiba and Hitachi, majoring on other TV technologies, have 3D snaffled away somewhere.
But it's Sony and Panasonic making the running here, and while the former is presenting 3D as – well, let's be frank – just about all it has to offer, judging from its stand, Panasonic is bullish enough to have organised a 3D seminar on the opening afternoon of the show, in which a selected group of journalists were able to hear the company's latest thinking on the subject.
Of course, it helps if you supply your own journalists, and that's just what Panasonic did, bringing the great and the good of consumer electronics journalism on an all-expenses-paid trip to the show, in order to explain the deep technology of its proposed 3D format, which of course it would like to see adopted as the worldwide standard.
The world's press
The great and the good? Newspaper journalists from Europe, America, Asia and Oceana, all kinds of people writing for 'tech' websites you've probably never heard of, and few British scribblers. Unfortunately the writer for Grand Designs magazine missed the seminar – not due in until a later flight, you see.
And of course, our invitation got lost in the post again, just as it did last year, when Panasonic had some people from Which? along for the ride. Yes, I was surprised, too...
Anyway, all of the above explains how, in a scene almost worthy of John Le Carre, I was standing admiring the Nissan robots yesterday afternoon – this year they've gone beyond not bumping into each other, and can now travel around like a school of tuna-friendly dolphins – when I was approached by a Panasonic UK PR person.
Contact is made
It wasn't quite "We've been expecting you, Mr Bond", more "We've been looking for you – there's a 3D seminar at 4pm and we think you should be there".
Oh well, it happened to be in the hotel in which I was staying, and thus effectively 'on the way home', so at 4pm there I was.
OK, so it may have been 4.01pm, because in the best manner of Panasonic press trips – I was once on one for five days and received a 12-page itinerary – things were running to military precision of timing, and the ride was already in motion.
And quite a ride it was, too.
Masayuki Kozuka, General Manager of the company's storage devices business strategy office, laid out the groundwork as to why Panasonic's version of the 3D standard was the way forward for 3D TV at home.
He told us how the Panasonic standard keeps Full HD quality, unlike some other 3D versions being batted around, how Panasonic's authoring operation is in Hollywood, at the heart of the movie industry, and how it produced Kill Bill among other Blu-ray releases, and is working with influential Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli on its next BD releases.
And yes, its 103in screens are use in Hollywood for checking releases, and yes, it's been working with James Cameron on his Avatar movie – just in case there was anyone left in the world who wasn't aware of the fact.
Next up to the plate, Hiroshi Miyai, director of Panasonic's High Quality AV Development Centre. No messing about for Miyai-san: he's straight out of the trap with the three advantages of the Panasonic 3D system.
One, plasma displays true 3D picture quality; two, the company offers an end to end solution, from the cameras needed to shoot the content to the systems to play it at home; and three, standardisation is good for consumers.
Reducing the afterglow
By now we were into (slightly) technical stuff about new screen phosphors with a third of the afterglow, and thus better response time, and faster extinction times on the active glasses required to view the 3D material, but I found myself writing just one thing in my notes:
'It's the beginning of another format war' is what I wrote, and I speak from experience, having been at similar Panasonic events right back to the days when it wanted us to buy VHS-C camcorders rather than the 8mm tape rivals such as Sony were promoting.
This was beginning to feel like just the same kind of exercise – the winning of hearts and minds.
Anyway, on to the questions and answers, and the people from the websites with names like Techlicious, Gadgtastic and 3D Expert were bristling to get their moment in the spotlight, putting their hands up and announcing themselves as being 'whoever, DVDGuru', and so on.
Meanwhile the journalists from the world's nationals wanted to show just how much insight they had into this entire consumer electronics market thing. Hint: not much, as it turned out, and the guys from Panasonic HQ in Osaka weren't going to give them more, staying relentlessly 'on message'.
More questions than answers
So for an hour we went through endless questions, none of which really got answered.
How big will the initial screens be? Interesting question, though they might have taken a clue from the fact the Panasonic stand was dripping with 50in 3D plasmas, but "We are looking at the volume zone for the home – we propose 50in, but will be looking at other sizes."
How much will the 3D TVs cost? "We are targeting family use, so within the range price considerations will be given – they won't be that expensive."
Can existing Blu-ray machines be modified for 3D? We didn't really get an answer to that one.
How long can one watch 3D with the special glasses without eye-strain? "The viewing time upper ceiling is the same as a movie in a theatre – around two to three hours."
At this, one of the US journalists got rather over-excited: "Are you suggesting that after two to three hours eye damage will occur?" he asked.
No, that's not really what we said, was the answer, and I think the response to his later "I feel I must clarify..." was along the lines that no, your head won't explode either.
OK, back to the prosaic: how much will the special glasses be? "About 10% of the price of the TV for four pairs of glasses, so about 5000yen for one pair, 20,000yen for four pairs."
At current shuddersome yen rates – I know, I just paid for dinner – that's about £35 for a pair of goggs, or £140 for the family pack.
Hmmm – do the maths and that seems to mean they're talking £1400 for the TV, but maybe that's just my mind running away with me...
Anyway, at last a concrete answer, but then "But those prices are the result of market research, not a commercialisation."
What we found out is that the glasses will be made by Panasonic, and that they'll be bundled with the TVs, or at least one pair and maybe more will be, and that they'll be powered by coin-type batteries good for about 100 hours' viewing, which may or not be rechargeable, but "we have just announced the technology so wouldn't want to answer that question."
And can you use other company's glasses with Panasonic's screens? In other words, will the standard be a standard? "We haven't confirmed details, so cannot comment yet. We just announced the details, so regarding commercialisation we can't confirm details."
Projectors? Maybe not...
What about projector systems? Or indeed glassless 3D? Will that be the next stage? Here we got lost in some discussion of rear-projection TVs, before getting back on track with home cinema projectors. These kind of got dismissed due to problems with focus, screen quality and viewing angles, with the statement that "plasma is self-illuminating, and a reality.
"Projection is fine for cinema, but home projector quality is reduced, so not suitable."
Anyone spotting a theme developing here?
Glassless systems apparently "require one hundred times the resolution of our system using plasma, so they're not feasible – that's our view".
That comment may not please Panasonic president Fumio Ohtsubo too much: earlier in the day, he'd told a round-table discussion with the company's guest journalists that "In the beginning you will need glasses. In the future you shouldn't need them. That is the challenge we have presented to our engineers, and we are always challenging them."
A format war in the offing?
I tried asking whether the lesson we should take from this briefing was that Panasonic was determined that its standard should become the standard, and whether the company would launch product if there were still competing standards when it was ready to start selling. The response involved the HDMI v1.4 standard, and the Extended Standard still being worked on by the Blu-ray Disc Association, but didn't really answer the question.
45 minutes in, and a Japanese journalist slips into the vacant seat beside me. "What time did it start?" she asks, and when I tell her she opens a pack of pretzel sticks, munches through them with some determination, and watches news of the impending typhoon on her mobile phone.
Will a whole movie fit onto one disc? The answer is sort of 'depends on the movie', and what extras the studio wants to include. "For short pictures, such as animation, it should be fine, but we're not sure anyone wants to watch an avatar for much longer than that."
Paging Mr Cameron, paging Mr Cameron...
Actually, it sounds like 3.5 hours of 3D will fit on a current disc, and we also learn that 3D discs will be compatible with standard TVs – the player will just send the telly the left eye image. But no comment on whether 3D discs will be playable on current BD machines, albeit only in 2D.
And then we're back on the safety aspects of watching 3D through flickering LCD shutters, and whether safety guidelines would be issued: "The International Standards Organisation is looking into it, but this may take two or three years. Some 'seasick' effects have been reported."
Clearly they talked to my wife after the demonstration at last year's CEATEC: it wasn't quite 'head between the knees and deep breaths' stuff, but a restorative Kirin or three was required...
And a question from New Zealand? "There have been reports that watching 3D TV stimulates both the left and right sides of the brain – has there been any research into this?"
Long pause, a request for clarification of the slightly bizarre question, and then a strangely blunt "We are not aware, so we would like to be silent on that, and refrain from making comments."
So there we have it. Time was called, and the ladies with flags ushered the Panasonic captive hordes back to their buses for the ride into Tokyo. I headed for the hotel bar to do a bit of head-shaking, and try to make some sense of my notes over a cold drink.
More than 24 hours later, reading the notes again, I'm not sure I can make any more sense of them.
But I can say one thing for sure: whoever you were, late-arriving journalist from Grand Designs magazine, you didn't miss much...