LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Remember the videotape format war between VHS and Betamax in the 1970s and '80s? When wide adoption of a new consumer packaged-media format is at stake, format launches aren't always smooth.
Blu-ray Disc is the latest example. It struggled out of the gate in 2006 while engaged in a fierce battle with HD DVD to become the high-def format of choice, a contest it won in 2008 when HD DVD conceded and manufacturers ceased production.
Now, just a year after its introduction at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, 3D Blu-ray is leading the charge to bring 3D -- the next frontier for packaged media -- into the home.
There are roughly 30 3D movie titles currently in retail stores (with more on the way), and players have been created by leading consumer electronics manufacturers including LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba and Vizio.
Industrywide agreement was key to the success of a 3D format launch, according to Andy Parsons, U.S. chairman of the Blu-ray Disc Assn.'s (BDA) promotions committee and senior vp product planning at Pioneer Home Entertainment Group.
Last spring, the BDA formed a 3D task force comprised of industry stakeholders to develop a 3D technical spec -- essentially the blueprint for the 3D format used by all manufacturers -- and it took only eight months for the spec to be agreed upon and completed.
"I don't think I've ever seen an association turn out a spec in such rapid time," Parsons said. "The alternative would have been two or three different ways to do 3D on a disc -- and that's death to a format. Everyone understood that could happen. We avoided what could have been an ugly, messy situation."
Since its introduction, 2D Blu-ray has also been challenged by Internet-based services that offer movie downloads and streaming, and there are many who remain skeptical about whether a new packaged media format is needed or can even survive in today's connected world. Others believe 3D could become the defining feature of the Blu-ray format.
As the New Year begins, stakeholders are focused on growing consumer awareness, as well as the penetration of 3D players and TVs along with the amount of available content.
"We will see large 3D (Blu-ray) theatrical releases, timed day-and-date with their 2D Blu-ray counterparts," says Rich Marty, vp new business marketing at Sony. First up was Resident Evil: Afterlife on December 28. The Green Hornet, opening theatrically January 14, will be among the titles arriving later in the year.
Studios are also considering 2D to 3D conversion of library titles as additional revenue opportunities.
"As conversion techniques continue to get better and the cost of conversion comes down, there will be growing interest to do more of these titles," Marty said.
But this may take some time, as the techniques are still young. "For us, it is all about the consumer experience," he said. "We're really focused on 3D native titles to be sure we put our best foot forward."
Another key requirement in the format launch is a wider selection of 3D movies, and many say that that is dependent on getting more 3D players and displays in the market -- making it more commercially viable for the studios to release more content. "Once we get to a meaningful number (of households with 3D TVs and players), there's no question the studios will be ready, willing and able to support it with 3D content," said Peter Staddon, senior vp, worldwide new business development, Deluxe Digital Studios.
At this early stage it's difficult to gauge the market penetration of 3D players and TV sets. A Black Friday survey from the Consumer Electronics Assn. suggested that of consumers who bought consumer electronics over the 2010 Thanksgiving holiday weekend, only 5 percent bought 3DTVs, and 12 percent bought Blu-ray players (2D and 3D were not distinguished in the survey).
BDA believes that roughly 25 percent of the Blu-ray players sold in the U.S. are now 3D ready (this doesn't include 3D Blu-Ray supported PS3 players.) The Consumer Electronics Assn. has that figure at around 19 percent.
When it comes to 3D Blu-ray, Hollywood's technology community is still hard at work.
During 2010, 3D production workflows, 3D subtitling systems, authoring systems and related processes had to be developed in order to fill the content pipeline.
In year two, consumers might begin to see more sophisticated 3D menu design.
Technicolor has already developed Blu-ray 3D Java interactive tools and 3D menu services.
"(Today's) are early menus," said Technicolor's Bob Michaels, vp worldwide DVD. "There's depth between menus and the picture behind it, but not to the menus itself."
He predicts new levels of interactivity in year two "not only from a more advanced interactivity experience but a 3D interactivity experience."
Supply chain collaboration is also needed as the industry goes forward, added Seth Hallen, CEO of Testronic Labs, which offers quality assurance and testing services. Noting steps from authoring to quality control, he said: "There are niches, and the supply chain is challenging themselves to find how to work together more effectively and more collaboratively."