I attended Panasonic Broadcast’s pre-NAB press conference this past week and heard more about the AG-3DA1 camcorder, now due to ship this fall.
Weighing in around 6 1/2lbs., the camcorder seems a bit ungainly, though it’s adequately balanced when handled. You probably won’t want to do all that much standard hand-held operation anyway, since careful setting of the convergence point is key to minimizing eye-strain on viewers. Panasonic plans to offer a remote control so an operator can dynamically adjust convergence, thus changing the depth of field experienced in 3D images.
The device uses a dual CMOS imaging front-end: six 1/4in. imagers that record dual 24Mbps streams of AVCHD to SD/SDHC cards. Bob Harris, VP of marketing and product development for Panasonic, said that the company is accepting pre-orders for the camcorder with a $1,000 non-refundable deposit for the $21,000 camcorder.
“We jumped into the mainstream with that lower price point,” says Harris, comparing it to the expensive, awkward to use prism systems. Rather than serving an established desire, the move to launch an industrial, even prosumer-pitched product (not his words) came about, Harris said, from the parent companies desire to establish itself in the hoped for, and still nascent, 3D television market for consumers.
At CES Panasonic joined with three other top selling TV manufacturers (Samsung Electronics, Sony, LG Electronics) to pitch their latest versions of 3D TVs, which are claimed to price at not much of a premium to standard large monitors. Panasonic set up a “home theater” built around its massive 103-inch, plasma 3D screen to show clips from recent films, as well as 3D footage from NBC’s broadcast of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Harris claimed the company was surprised by the interest expressed for the camcorder since its release was announced at CES. Initial interest, according to the company, seems to highlight practical, industrial uses, everything from store kiosks, dental surgery to military, such as showing mid-air refueling.
Director of marketing Joe Facchini admitted that he doesn’t see much theatrical application, unless it’s an image you’d be satisfied with showing output from a standard camcorder with 1/4in. imagers. While Harris remarked on the possibility of going up- or downscale from the current model, no commitment came on either a higher-end system–which would require some sort of complicated rig, at least with current design thinking, to hold two standard-size camcorders–or an even less expensive consumer version.
With a mandate from higher ups to find some way to support the new lines of 3D monitors now set to come out of factories such as Panasonic’s latest in Western Japan (due to come on line this year), I’d bet it’s not too long before we see a much less expensive, simple-to-use model.
While the majority of time was spent discussing the camcorder, the Panasonic management also announced a 25.5in. 3D LCD production monitor, the BT-3DL2550, with a 1920×1200 resolution, dual HD-SDI inputs and a DVI-D input for line-by-line or side-by-side display. The monitor uses passive glasses, said to make more sense in a potential multi-3D monitor environment, which would make syncing active-shutter glasses impractical.
The Panasonic team went on to note a few other products, such as the AG-MSU10 P2 Media Storage Unit, a portable “workflow tool” aimed at simplifying the process of backing-up or aggregating P2 content to a larger removable solid-state drives.
But it was striking about how much wasn’t said: from the 3D camcorder’s unremarked upon third party who will build the optical front-end (no specifics were offered), to the exact rationale behind a multi-billion dollar international company that’s one of the major video systems manufacturers asking for a $1000 deposit before it will “build to order” your 3D camera—a first in memory.
Or indeed, why the product offerings were so slim compared to previous years. There was nothing significant in this pre-NAB line-up besides a tentative 3D move, although other unspecified new products are to be announced at NAB itself.
Put part of this seeming caution to the fact of the company’s 14-percent overall drop in sales in fiscal 2009: Digital AVC Networks sales decreased by 13-percent, with sales of video and audio equipment decreasing 6-percent from the previous year, due mainly to sluggish sales in digital AV products such as plasma TVs and digital cameras, according to a Panasonic press release last May.
The company responded by accelerating business restructuring initiatives (integrating and closing of manufacturing sites), withdrawing from unprofitable businesses, and reassigning and downsizing of workforce.
Pretty grim. Panasonic blamed the worldwide recession and shrinking demand, along with changes in market structure, including a “demand shift to lower-priced products.”
That was the outlook last May. But maybe it’s not quite so grim today. At the beginning of the month, Panasonic reported third-quarter 2010 profit jumped more than threefold due to “cost cuts and robust TV sales”, allowing it to raise its forecast for the year above market expectations. (Safety issues at Toyota however, its biggest corporate customer, could affect its performance, casting a shadow over its longer-term prospects, according to Panasonic.)
Growing demand for LCD televisions pushed most of third quarter growth, according to company stats, but Panasonic said it still planned to cut fixed costs by some $4.1 billion this financial year, up from a lower target announced earlier.
Uncertainty about consumer demand in overseas markets, still hobbled by the high levels of consumer debt and an uncertain labor market, make the rest of the year a difficult haul for Panasonic, Sony, and other Japanese exporters according to Marc Desmidt, COO of Asian equities at BlackRock in Hong Kong.
So don’t expect a flood of big, ground-breaking product introductions at this year’s NAB, from Panasonic or other major manufacturers. That required $1000 deposit? Put that to mid-level management at the video division proving to higher ups that they too are playing cautious. Expect to see a lot of that cautious thinking this year.
—Updated 16 Feb 2010