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The State of the Art for 3D Cameras at NAB 2011

COW Library : NAB Show : Steven Bradford : The State of the Art for 3D Cameras at NAB 2011
CreativeCOW presents The State of the Art for 3D Cameras at NAB 2011 -- NAB Expo Editorial

Seattle Washington USA All rights reserved.

It's no longer enough to simply show two cameras on a rig and pass out glasses to get "oohs" and "aahs" for carefully selected "wow" shots. Many more video pros have now completed their first -- or even 10th -- 3D production. Newly minted 3D vets asked how much camera rigs weighed, how long they took to set up, and how easy they were to adjust during a production. They needed to know that they can easily sync multiple cameras, or pre-visualize shots and calculate scene depth quickly.

After the release last September of the Panasonic AG- 3DA1, a handheld 3D zoom lens camcorder, I expected to see many more integrated 3D camcorders at this year's exhibits.

Many people realized that the AG-3DA1 wasn't the all around solution for all markets that some people had hoped it would be. But it truly is a camcorder, one that you can take right out of the case on location, and start shooting with right away, just like you can with a 2D camcorder.

At the professional EFP camera level, three more of these were on exhibit, but only one is available now.

Panasonic's follow-up camera is the Panasonic AG-3DP1, a full shoulder camcorder with P2 recording capability, which improves in several ways on the AG- 3DA1. The operating prototypes were only behind the ropes of the booth, and the final specs for the camera's fall introduction are still in flux, but this much is known: it will record the L/R signal from two 1/3" 2.2 megapixel 3MOS sensors as AVC-Intra 100 for 10 bit 4:2:2 files on two separate P2 cards. That's a true 1920x1080 recording for 60i/50i/30P/25P/24P frame rates.

The AG-3DP1 also supports variable frame rate recording from 1 to 60 in the 720p mode. Three ND filters are built in, behind the dual zoom lens, which will have at least a 17x lens, though the exact wide and tele ranges haven't been nailed down yet. Though it appears from first glance as if it might have an interchangeable lens mount, the lens is permanently affixed.

Panasonic P2-3D
Panasonic P2 3D

The inter-axial distance appears to be similar to the 3D1A, but is also still up in the air. There was also no word on whether or not the 3DP1 inter-axial would be adjustable, or if the close focus limit will be less than on its predecessor. Many producers have been using the 3D1A camera for concerts and event work, where a small inter-axial isn't an issue, and they will really appreciate these improvements.

Also important for multi-camera work, the camera has genlock inputs and TC In/Out sync. The camera works with the AG-EC4G Remote Panel, and convergence can be remotely operated, in addition to the usual iris, zoom and focus remote links.

Pricing wasn't available, but with these upgrades, it will be more expensive than the 3DA1. At the Sony end of the exhibit hall, there were two intriguing new cameras: one under glass and one very small Handycam style camera that accessible for handheld examination. The bigger, ENG form factor Sony PMW-TD300 wasn't shown in operation, but it's clear that it is meant to be Sony's answer to the Panasonic shoulder camera.

Sony PMWTD300: Solid-state memory 3D shoulder-mount camcorder

Based on the existing PMW-320 camcorder, but with two 3-CMOS imagers, it has a permanently affixed zoom lens. The inter-axial distance is relatively small, fixed at 45mm, with a close focus distance of 1.2 meters. On the left side of the lens box is a large multi-function knob controlling zoom, focus and convergence. Focus and convergence can be locked together, or operated independently, and there's a standard zoom rocker on the right side.

This camera also records the left and right images to separate files, on two separate SxS Express Cards. The expected price when this camera becomes available this winter is $33,000. Many 3D pros have been hoping for a camera that could truly enable ENG-style 3D shoots for network use. At this price, this could be the one.

On the opposite end of the price and size range is Sony's small handheld entry, the Sony HXR-NX3D1. It's a fun little camera, yet has some impressive specs. Two 10x lenses, with 50i/60i/24P recording 28Mbps AVCHD to SD or Memory Stick. Such a small camera will be hard to hold steady; and yes it does have Optical SteadyShot function in 3D mode.

Sony HXRNX3D Camcorder

To make shooting easier, the 3D flip out screen is glasses free, and there is both an automatic and a manual parallax correction. Although it looks like a home camera, it comes with a top-mount XLR audio adapter, and has time code recording. If you're stuck without a memory card, it even has 96 GB of memory built in. It could also be popular as a second unit camera because of its small size and 35mm inter-axial, handy for getting in tight spots and close-ups.

JVC showed their own small handheld 3D camera, the JVC GY-HMZ1U. It's actually a pro version of a consumer camera that's already in stores, but with an added handle and XLR audio adapter. It has a glassesfree flip out screen, small 35mm inter-axial, image stabilizer and 60i or 24p AVCHD recording to SD cards, with a bit rate of 34 Mbps. The lenses are 5x, and the screen will even show exposure zebras.

JVC GY-HMZ1U Camcorder
JVC GY-HMZ1U Camcorder

Nifty extra features are 3D time-lapse recording and up to 12 fps "motor drive" recording in stills mode. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of 3D pros buy this for behind-the-scenes recording and family use, yet end up using it for hard to get shots in tight spaces. The GY-HMZ1U will be available in the fall for under $2500.

The tight spaces champ of NAB was the GoPro3D. GoPro has fashioned a new case and sync cable that uses two of their popular waterproof sports cameras to make a go anywhere 3D 1920x1080 camera. The kit is only $99. Add two $260 GoPro Hero cameras and you can shoot 3D almost anywhere, even underwater to 180'. GoPro also showed an alternate mount using THREE GoPro Heros. Recording simultaneously, that setup gives you two inter-axial distances to choose from in any given shot.

Another mounting device for two sports cameras is the very unfortunately named, Pipe Bomb, from GunMetal systems. It uses the Contour HD cameras, but it is a physical mounting device only, and doesn't provide the frame sync that the GoPro3D kit does.

3D ONE I have a particular fondness for another 3D handheld offering at NAB, from 3D-ONE. Their second integrated handheld camera made its first NAB appearance this year, although it has been around for a few years. In fact, the 3D-ONE started out as a camera commissioned by the European Space Agency in 2004, and the early versions have been used aboard the International Space Station successfully since 2006. 3D-ONE has been working hard to adapt it for earthbound shooters.

The 12x zoom lens has a wide angle equivalent to 26mm on 35mm movie cameras. The inter-axial is 65mm, but you can order a 55mm inter-axial. It records 1920x1080P at 24/25/ 30 fps to AVI or MOV motion JPEG files on internal SATA 2.5 inch solid state drives. Bitrates from 100 to 300 Mbps are selectable.


Twin HDMI outputs give more recording and display options. The most interesting feature is its Ethernet interface, for streaming directly to the internet.

Unlike most other 3D cameras, it has a stereoscopic eyepiece, with two separate screens. This was probably the weakest feature of the camera, as the two eyepieces were moved out of alignment easily. 3D-ONE plans to replace them with viewfinders from Zacuto.

Without a battery it weighs under 10 lbs, but it puts most of the weight forward of the shoulder, so you'll need a shoulder bracket if you try to do much handheld shooting with it. As for princing, 3D-ONE will build one to order for $35,000.

What if you want more 3D shooting options, but are still on a low budget? Several companies showed inexpensive 3D rigs that could be used with many different cameras. Redrock Micro showed a production prototype of an $895 side-by-side rig. This is a completely manual rig, and doesn't give near the adjustment of the much more expensive rigs.

The camera mounts have a 3-axis XYZ adjustment and a very slick quick release from the rig, so that once you've aligned the cameras, you can remove them with the alignment plate for transport. It seems best suited to smaller prosumer or block cameras though, and with cameras mounted, makes for an easy to move setup. Perfect for anyone just starting out that wants to learn 3D, or needs to put together several small camera setups.

Stepping up in versatility and cost, at $5895, is the Aero3D, a mirror beam-splitter rig. This might be the lightest mirror rig of the show at less than 9 lbs. Michael Hastings, the inventor, claims its design and manufacture gives it better rigidity than many larger units with multiple parts that can easily flex out of alignment. His company also makes underwater housings, and he said an underwater 3D rig is in the works.

Genus Hurricane
The Genus Hurricane, manufactured by Manfrotto

The Genus Hurricane is another light and inexpensive mirror rig introduced this year, and is distributed by Manfrotto. It's about 14 lbs., and though it can hold larger cameras, it seems to be optimized for cameras like the Sony PMW-EX3.>

Adjustments are fully manual, and at $8000 it was probably the least expensive mirror and side-by-side rig at the show with full manual adjustments.

In 2011, "Professional 3D Camera" still almost always means two cameras from one manufacturer bolted to a precision stereo rig from another. Binocle returned from France with their Brigger series of motorized, side-by-side and beam splitter rigs, all with real-time remote motion control for both cameras, of inter-axial, convergence, zoom, focus, and aperture. Despite being a motorized rig, the Brigger I went on a diet this year; as a handheld mirror rig it now comes in at under 16 lbs., without cameras.

Binocle Brigger
Binocle Brigger

Inter Video 3D had two rigs on display, an over-under beam-splitter mirror rig and an unusual horizontal beam-splitter rig. Both cameras are on the same level, rather than one camera pointing out and one pointing into a mirror. This simplifies some aspects of alignment, and makes keeping a rig rigid almost as simple for a mirror rig as for sideby- side rigs. Because everything is above the tripod head, there is no limitation to tilting up or down. Without control motors or cameras, this $14,000 rig weighs in at 14lbs.

Screenplane's innovative beam-splitters put the tilt pivot of their rigs up high, near the center of gravity of the twin camera.

The Screenplane Merger
Screenplane Merger, described as "The perfect tool for stereo alignment on set."
Last year, Screen Plane showed their sleek and innovative beam-splitters that put the tilt pivot of their rigs up high, near the center of gravity of the twin cameras, and a sophisticated on-set preview system. New this year is the Screen Plane Merger, a very small multiplexer box with both a touchscreen interface and a thumbnail image display.

The Merger accepts 720p and 1080p inputs, outputs almost all 2D and 3D viewing modes as SDI outs, and can insert 3D metadata into the video stream. Though it works with many cameras, in conjunction with Screen Plane's small 1080p XS-HD cameras, it is also a power supply, CCU, sync source, and debayer box.

Bridging the gap between companies selling 3D rigs, and companies selling completely integrated 3D cameras, is Indiecam from Austria. The modular indieTWIN system uses two of their tiny 1920x1080p indiePOV cameras side-by-side in a sleek hand-held carriage. These diminutive cameras allow a 40mm minimum inter-axial separation.

The Indiecam from Austria.

The carriage also mounts the indieSHUTTLE dual channel recorder, which combines stereoscopic preview functions, and acts as a CCU for the cameras. The recordings can be either RAW or YUV uncompressed and the indieSHUTTLE will also record from the HD-SDI outputs of other companies cameras. Finally, their indieSCREEN 3D display can be viewed in full daylight.

Adding motorized controls to a beam-splitter adds greatly to the cost. The Teletest BINORIG promises to knock down that barrier. It has motorized control of the inter-axial and convergence adjustments, for only $18,150 for the basic rig. For producers needing to move up from simpler side-by-side 3D cameras to the versatility of a mirror rig that is small enough for hand holding or Steadicam work, the BINORIG could be the next step.

Microfilms is another new entrant in the beam-splitter rigs arena. They claim their rig automation is capable of completely calibrating all the variables of left right camera alignment, from wide to telephoto, using only images of a live scene, without use of a special 3D chart. This could be particularly valuable in live event production.

Element Technica announced that they've shipped 165 3D rigs since 2009. (Part of their booth is featured in the title graphic for this article.) Those rigs are not specific to any one model of camera. This year they introduced the Atom, which is specifically designed for a new camera that's already created a big stir before its actual release, the RED Epic. Element Technica claims that this very high resolution, large imager, two camera combination is nonetheless lighter than some standard 35mm 2D film cameras.

P+S Technik also announced the Evolution upgrade for the Freestyle beam-splitter rig, allowing the rig to support camera weights of up to 19.8 lbs. per camera.

I'll close out with three very intriguing cameras that don't fit well into our current definitions of what a 3D digital camera is.

The smallest of this group is from an unexpected source -- Datavideo. I almost missed the Datavideo LIVE S3D-1, as it was in the South Hall of the convention center, far from almost all of the camera exhibitors. But it does entice, and I hope Datavideo develops this preliminary model further into a product.

Datavideo 3D
Datavideo S3D-1 Stereoscopic 3D Camera

The cameras are tiny, yet still have 2/3rd inch 1080p imagers. They also use a "global" shutter, which should eliminate any motion disparity between the images caused by fast pans or fast moving objects.

The length of the camera without lenses or a monitor attached appeared to be about 2 inches. This makes it almost as easy to mount in small spaces as the GoPro, but with far greater lens and shot versatility. In addition to an HDMI out for each camera, the LIVE S3D-1 also has optional Wi-Fi remote control using an Apple iPad.

Meduza Systems showed a digital stereoscopic camera system prototype, the Meduza 007 -- and it was unlike all the others at NAB. It's not a rig, but an integrated camera system. It's also sensor agnostic, which means that sensor blocks can be changed out to meet the needs of the production. They're offering many sensor options in the 2K and 1920 range to what they call "beyond 4K."

Meduza 007. Photo courtesy of Meduza Systems.

What's most interesting is the 3072x4096 option, which translates into IMAX capability. Yet despite that large size, the cameras have a variable interaxial of 40mm to 100mm in side-by-side mode.

As an integrated system, the Meduza advances past Sony and Panasonic's 3D camcorders in challenging the conventional layout of 3D rigs. Those camcorders eliminate the redundancies of separate power supplies, cases, mountings, etc. -- but still, they are two cameras inside one box. Their biggest limitation as an all-purpose 3D camera is an interaxial that is either fixed, or with only a very narrow range of adjustment compared to mirror pellicle rigs.

By separating the chip blocks from the camera body, not only does the Meduza have a greater side-by-side mode, but it also can be switched over into a mirror pellicle mode.

The Meduza folks would have an impressive innovation just with that, but they're also promising that the camera is "Sensor Agnostic," which they promise will mean that the sensor blocks can be swapped out for not just new more advanced sensors, but also to whatever sensor is best for the job: small sensors, large sensors, more sensitive sensors, high frame rate sensors -- whatever is appropriate.

This mimics one of the last great strength of film cameras, the ability to be up to date with new films in old, even ancient cameras. The same camera can be converted to a beam-splitter mode, and can then achieve an inter-axial down to zero. Supported frame rates are 4 to 150 fps. On-board recording to a data back is supported, in uncompressed DNG RAW. Camera controls in the under-15 lb. camera are both wired and wireless.

Plus, not only will the camera be controllable by iPad or Android, Meduza is adopting an Open Source design philosophy for accessories and software, coupled with the release of a Software Development Kit.

To match the innovation in the camera, Meduza has an innovative approach to sales. It will be leased, not sold, for an annual rate of $27,500 a year.

As the size of imaging chips has increased, many of us have discussed the possibility of a digital version of single strip stereoscopic film cameras. In single strip systems, there is only one camera, with a twin lens on the front lens ports directing the left and right images onto a single strip of film, either side-by-side, or one over the other.

This can solve a variety of issues. The camera can potentially be much smaller, yet with high resolution performance. Sync is automatic, as is color matching between the two images, since they're on the same strip of film.

AbelCine has adapted this concept to very large imagers in the Phantom 65-Z3D, which combines the Phantom 65 high-speed camera with Zepar 3D dual lens sets from Russia. They are in fact adapted from lenses originally designed to photograph left-right pairs onto a single strip of 65mm film. They were designed and built by MKBK, a motion picture equipment development agency of the Russian government.

AbelCine Phantom 65-Z3D
Phantom 65-Z3D System

AbelCine Z3D Lenses
Zepar Stereo 3D Prime Lenses

The lenses are built as pairs of fixed focal length lenses, in a single mounting frame. Within that unit, the lenses face forward, parallel, and do not toe in to converge. This eliminates keystoning and the possibility of excessive parallax divergence.

There are currently seven prime lens sets, ranging from 20mm to 100mm. Lens interaxial is adjustable, to as little as 24mm, depending on which lens set is used. These lenses project two 35mm film-sized images on the single 4096 x 2440 imager, resulting in true 35mm film depth of field characteristics.

Because the images are on the same chip, and processed through a single 4K resolution image path, there is no variation of color or exposure between the two. Yet the entire camera and lens combination is less than 15 lbs., quite small compared to nearly all the other professional 3D cameras out there.

It's basically as easy to change the Zepar 3D lenses as it is to change current 2D film camera lenses. After a lens change, the camera uses a very fast automatic calibration system to align the images.

The Phantom 65-Z3D also takes advantage of the high frame rates possible with the Phantom 65, up to 300 fps.

But what is the importance of having a camera that can shoot at 300 fps? The current buzz in 3D cinema production circles is upping the standard cinema frame rate from 24 fps to 48, even 60 fps.

James Cameron was pushing this heavily in the weeks before the show. He prefers the greater clarity higher frame rates add to moving objects in 3D and the virtual elimination of the picket fence effect when panning vertical lines. Many others are coming around to the idea that 3D should be captured at higher frame rates, including visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, whose work includes 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

His interest in higher frame rates might be expected, as Trumbull invented the 60 fps Showscan 65mm ride film process in the 1980s -- but was never able to get Hollywood to go along with it for feature work.

A big problem was projector conversion; theatrical film projectors are geared to project only at 24 fps. But digital projectors easily accommodate these higher rates, and many already support 60 fps. Trumbull announced in March that he's directing a new film in 3D, and it will be shot at 60. Cameron has also committed to shooting his next film at 48 or 60 fps.

So why 300 fps specifically? For slow-mo shots, a camera should be able to shoot a multiple of its standard shooting rate. It's common for film cameras to shoot 70 to 150 fps, or about three to seven times 24 fps, and about half of that at 48 fps. Three hundred fps is of course 5X 60 fps, so whether a production standardizes at 48 or 60, a camera that can shoot full 35mm film resolution digital at 300 fps is very useful.

Trumbull has already used the 65-Z3D to produce a music video.

The transition I saw at the NAB Show 2011 was from a predominance of camera rigs that looked like science fair experiments last year, to slimmed-down, streamlined rigs and integrated cameras this year.

Though for now the big camera manufacturers are likely quite happy to sell cameras for rigs that put two camera heads in every position where there used to be just one, it was exciting to see more cameras this year that looked like, well, a camera, and not an optical bench perched on tripod.

All images courtesy of Steven Bradford, with the exception of the Meduza Systems 007 prototype and the press photos of JVC, Panasonic and Sony 3D cameras.

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