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3D: is this the resurgence that counts?

Darren Murph

You know, it's strange really. Not even four years ago, most everyone you talked to viewed 3D as a gimmicky trip reserved for theme park attractions and the occasional educational showing at the local cineplex. After all, it's hard to convince fifth graders to pay attention to a lesson in prehistoric history without a Tyrannosaurus Rex getting all up in their grilles, right? Now that CES has come and gone, it's safe to say that Hollywood (among other entities) is giving the format another chance to excel, but we still have strong reservations on whether it's actually what the people want. Join us after the break as we take a brief peek back at where 3D was, where it currently sits and where deep-pocketed executives -- those looking for the "next big thing" -- hope it goes.

3D productions have literally been around for scores, and up until recently, pretty much every venue that displayed material in the third dimension did so by projecting stereoscopic images. In other words, viewers were forced to wear heinous glasses in order to experience the true depth, and even today, that very barrier to enjoyment is pinned (rightfully so, we believe) as the primary reason for its inability to gain traction amongst moviegoers. More specifically, the technique used in years past involves filming two images simultaneously, with a pair of cameras situated side-by-side and in exact synchronization. When viewed through the aforesaid glasses, the human brain reassembles the imagery as a single 3D image. Sure, we're simplifying things drastically here, but anyone who has sat down behind a pair of those spectacles fully understands what we're getting at.

But let's face it -- we all understand that glasses-based 3D will never thrive in such a way that scads of individuals race out to adopt the technology within their own homes. Or, at least not by using the same antiquated red / blue technology that has been relied on so frequently in the past. So, the big question is what are 3D backers doing now to revive interest in a format that most people already shrug off as a joke, and how on Earth do they plan to improve it enough to not only make it viable again, but downright desirable?

Over the past year in particular, we've seen just about everyone jump completely on board the 3D bandwagon. Oh sure, James Cameron was pining to reinvigorate 3D cinema way back in 2006, and there were already whispers about screening live sporting events in 3D that same year, but it's taken until now for any of those far-fetched plans to come to fruition. We first started to wonder if Hollywood, movie producers and general managers of sporting clubs were actually serious about re-pursuing 3D in the early part of 2008. Practically out of nowhere, DreamWorks Animations and Pixar announced that all of its future films would be created for 3D viewing, the NBA began showcasing live games in 3D as part of a trial run and Hannah Montana / U23D both managed to generate some serious buzz amongst moviegoers.

From there, it's hard to tell if the rest of the industry support simply fell in line coincidentally, or if everyone had just taken this long to get their acts together. 3D proponents Samsung and Texas Instruments began to deliver new wares to encourage the at-home adoption of 3D, and other companies began focusing on ways to easily bring 3D material into the home on formats we were already comfortable with owning. Clearly, the new push for 3D not only involved the expansion of 3D-capable theaters, but the deliverance of 3D content into the home.

We sort of get the feeling that content guardians are hoping that 3D will see the same level of attachment as has HDTV. Just a few years back, finding a pal with an HDTV and a sufficient amount of HD content was a chore; today, it's well on its way to becoming just as pervasive as the DVD player in America, and other nations aren't too far behind. The challenge, however, is to convince consumers that 3D is just as worthwhile a technology as viewing programming in 1080i, and of course, convincing content producers to provide material taps into that third dimension. Of course, we've already got consortiums being created to ensure that it happens, so good luck trying to be the resistance.

Today, we've got the likes of Dolby, Mitsubishi, NVIDIA, Aspen, TI, Philips, projectiondesign, TDVision, 3ality Digital, JVC, Hyundai, GestureTek, InFocus, RealD, LG, NEC, Sony, iZ3D, Sky, Alioscopy, Cinedigm and a gaggle of other up and coming firms working to ensure that 3D actually becomes a household name over the next few years. Heck, Panasonic is already pushing for a 3D protocol to be baked into Blu-ray Discs in order to get 3D high-def material into the home within the the new dozen or so months. Theaters across the globe are working feverishly to equip their cinemas with 3D equipment, and content owners are doing everything in their power to generate enough 3D material to make people actually care enough to want it in their homes. The bottom line? 3D has more support from those with fat wallets and unwavering determination than it has ever had in the past, but it's really about what future changes will occur that'll determine the long-term viability.

Speaking of which, aren't you curious as to how all of those companies are planning to make things different this go round? First off, it was absolutely critical that 3D received a generous amount of backing from every possible angle before it moved forward with advertising campaigns and the like. As we've seen, that support is definitely there. Unfortunately, the shift away from glasses-required 3D to no-glasses-needed 3D seems to be moving at a glacial pace, and even the 3D demonstrations that we viewed at CES sans goggles were less than riveting. Still, there are some interesting approaches being made -- for starters, major sporting events are beginning to be shown in 3D cinemas everywhere, giving sports enthusiasts a reason to leave the house and sit down for an up close and personal look at the big game. It's not completely out of the realm of feasibility to think that most major championships and All-Star games would be offered locally in 3D in the near future, and with sports as big as the NFL (in the US), we could see theaters opening their doors each Sunday for pigskin fanatics who can't wait to see 300 pound gentlemen suited up and headed for their laps.

Beyond that, major movie studios are definitely looking to push their releases in 3D loving homes. 3D-capable televisions are already on the market, but it'll be tough sledding trying to convince cash-strapped individuals to buy in without a copious amount of interesting material to go with it. Without question, we see the future bringing big waves of 3D content to the home, be it through traditional pay-TV methods or, more likely, through Blu-ray Discs or digital downloads.

The biggest unknown about the future of 3D, however, is the actual technology behind it. Even with oodles of content, why would consumers decide now that strapping a set of goofy goggles on the family as they gather 'round to watch a Saturday night film is acceptable when it has been rejected time and time again in the past? Sure, methodologies have made viewing angles better and the 3D experience as a whole sharper, but to us, it really boils down to this: are you seriously kosher with rockin' a set of rectangular glasses each time you want to enjoy a program?

The glasses-free approach to 3D has been around for years now, but it has taken until recently for technology firms to really sink any significant amounts of cash into it. Without getting too deep in the technobabble, this autostereoscopic technique ditches the many left-eye / right-eye alternatives in order to mix a handful of slightly offset views of a scene in real time. From there, an optical lenticular lens is flanked on the front of the display, and hundreds of so-called "micro-lenses operate like miniature magnifying glasses to display the eight points of view that change according to the viewer's position." In theory, this solves the whole problem that has hindered 3D in the past, but in reality, it's not nearly as awesome. In fact, we were actually more impressed (albeit more nauseated) with the glasses-required showing of the 2009 BCS National Championship game than the many glasses-free demo kiosks in Vegas. But, to be fair, we certainly dig where this is headed. If manufacturers can somehow figure out how to sharpen up autostereoscopic images and make them actually inviting to watch (read: completely override the gimmick factor with bona fide awesomeness), there actually could be an untapped market for 3D in the home. The issue here is execution, and to this day, we've yet to see a 3D showing pulled off without at least one serious drawback.

Make no mistake, the financial support necessary to take this technology to the next level has finally arrived, and there's hardly anything that can't be accomplished with enough cheddar, brains and free time. The next 12 to 24 months should really indicate whether or not the biggest 3D push ever actually has a chance at gaining traction, but unlike Blu-ray and HD streaming -- which provide tangible benefits that consumers already desire -- 3D first has to overcome its well earned stereotype of being nothing more than a cheap trick suitable only for second-rate Disney attractions.

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