Not since I first walked around in public with an iPad has a piece of technology drawn so much attention as Sony's 3-D HDR-TD10 Handycam.
Its brick-like rectangular body weighs about 750 grams and is almost laughably large compared to most other consumer camcorders. But it's not the device's size that will cause passers-by to steal looks but instead its dual-lenses. When the TD10's hood slides open and its two glass eyes peer out, it's actually a bit creepy – like WALL-E, but without the cute, expressive metal eyebrows.
Onlookers will be just as disoriented should they happen to find themselves on the other side of the lenses looking at the large 3.5-inch touch screen, which delivers glasses-free 3-D viewing in much the same way as Nintendo's parallax barrier 3DS display. It works very well – so long as you're positioned directly behind the screen at a distance of about 30 centimetres. Otherwise everything will appear doubled up and wonky. (You can switch to 2-D mode at the tap of a button.) But for all its unusualness, the TD10 works. It captures images that pop off the screen just as boldly as those in any Hollywood blockbuster, and watching them on a steteoscopic television is as simple as connecting the two via the included HDMI cable.
Indeed, director Barry Sonnenfeld, whose upcoming film Men in Black 3 will be shown in 3-D, wrote an article for Esquire earlier this summer endorsing Sony's camcorder as the "standout" among all the consumer 3-D video cameras he'd tested, praising it for its sophistication, performance, and naked-eye stereoscopic display.
However, you may need Hollywood-level cinematography skills like his to shoot watchable footage (not to mention budget, but we'll get to that). Capturing simulated depth, it turns out, requires a very specific approach in order for it to look any good. Sony includes a booklet containing tips on how to shoot in 3-D, but it provides guidance of only the most basic kind.
The first thing to keep in mind is that objects and subjects beyond the convergence point – the place where the difference in perspective between the two lenses vanishes – will appear to be on the same plane (which is to say flat) regardless of the distance separating them. I tried shooting footage of the street from a balcony and the depth effect was zero. It simply appeared as though the scene had been shot in 2D.
The convergence point can be pushed back as you zoom in on a scene, but you'll need to be careful about nearer objects creeping into the picture. They'll either appear to float like cutouts in a cardboard diorama, or, in extreme cases, show as a disorienting double images.
Also bad for 3-D movies: shaky, documentary style shooting (this isn't the sort of camcorder you can put in the hands of young children and expect to get anything usable back – trust me, I tried) and allowing your primary subject to touch the edges of the picture. I followed my daughter as she danced along a long sidewalk. The depth effect was wonderful – she popped off the screen gracefully while pedestrians walking past us moved deeper into the picture – but only so long as her entire body remained in the frame and I maintained a very steady hand. Luckily, Sony's optical and active image stabilization systems are pretty effective.
Assuming you get the hang of shooting in the third-dimension, you'll likely approve of the quality of the images you see. Unlike the stereoscopic camcorder from Panasonic that I looked at last year, which is basically a standard video camera with a dual-lens attachment, Sony's camcorder is two complete video systems in a single body, which means it captures a pair of true 1080p video streams. With dual G-series lenses with 17x optical zoom, two Exmor R image sensors, and two separate image processors, we ought not to be shocked, then, that this camcorder's $1499.99 price tag is about twice that of a good traditional HD camcorder.
Audio is good, too. A nicely spaced 5.1 Sony S-master speaker system with wind filters is mounted below the two lenses to capture spacious sound. I could easily make out the directions from which the sounds of cars, birds, and kids came when playing back video in my home theatre.
Should you happen to tire of the whole 3-D thing – or perhaps begin to run out of room on the camcorder's 64 GB drive (my tests ate up a whopping gigabyte of hard drive space for every fives minutes of 3-D footage) – you can just switch over to 2-D shooting. The camcorder will revert to using a single lens, sensor, and processor, and your video will be on par what you can capture using Sony's higher quality monoscopic consumer camcorders.
On the subject of 2-D recording, that's the mode in which you'll do your editing via Sony's included Picture Motion Browser, though saved files restored to the camcorder will still be in 3-D. Files are recorded in AVCHD format by default, but if you want to save even more space and speed up editing you can record in standard definition MPEG-2 format.
Now let's address the elephant in the room: Is there really a market for a pricey 3-D camcorder? After reports of slow consumer adoption of 3-D televisions, critics claiming that the movie and television industries are trying to sell people on a technology they don't really want, and pundits saying that 3-D may be dead in the water, who would be willing to spend what amounts to a month's mortgage for many on a 3-D video camera?
The answer, clearly, is very few people. Only those who have a 3-D television, and of that tiny subset only those with enough money that they wouldn't have to think twice about dropping $1500 on what is essentially a high tech toy.
But while they may be small in number, these people do exist. And if you happen to be one of them, you should know that the TD10 shoots splendid stereoscopic home movies.