It's been a long journey from “Bwana Devil” to “Avatar,” but after three false starts, it looks like stereoscopic 3-D has finally arrived as a successful way to deliver entertainment. “Bwana Devil” was released in 1952, and more than 50 years later, “Avatar” has broken box-office records, finally making stereoscopic 3-D a technology that should not be dismissed.
The movie industry has always led television in the quest for a more immersive performance. In the 1930s, it was color, and in the 1950s, it was the widescreen. Television caught up quickly with color, but with widescreen, it didn't become a popular transmission format until the turn of the century.
3-D was another potential draw for audiences. The concept has been around since the start of photography: We have two eyes, so why not two cameras? It has been postulated that 3-D failed in the cinema because of film weave, creating left/right spatial displacements that confused the brain, plus the issues related to the syncing of two prints in the projector.
The introduction of digital projection has changed all that. With rock-steady images that are simple to synchronize, the cinema once more started to differentiate from television with digital 3-D.
Outside of the world of cinema, CE vendors have recognized an opportunity for the next purchases after a regular flat-screen receiver, and that is a 3-D display and a 3-D Blu-ray player.
The cinema has shown that 3-D can finally be successful, and following the recent CES Show, there is now the means to view content in the home. The Blu-ray guys have moved quickly on the standards front so that the movie industry can deliver 3-D to the theatre and the home. One key bit of technology is the HDMI 1.4 interconnection. This provides the interoperability between picture source and display that is essential for successful adoption in the home. Vendor lock-in just doesn't work.
But most home viewing is not movies, and much of the theatrical releases have been animation, which is not difficult to make in stereo if the animation is all 3-D. Home viewing is more about sports, events and all the regular studio shows.
For sports broadcasters like ESPN and Sky, 3-D is just another step to enhance the “viewing experience.” Perhaps the easiest pay content to sell, sports broadcasting has always been at the vanguard of the new because it can afford to be. The armchair sportsman has deep pockets.
The business case for a 3-D channel on pay TV is much easier than for an over-the-air channel. There are still many unknowns. What will ad rates be? What is the additional cost of 3-D production?
Some broadcasters, notably Sky, have been learning about production techniques for the last 18 months. However, you cannot launch a service without the means to view it. After CES, the displays are coming.
And what about glasses? All the initial display techniques use glasses: active or passive. This raises several issues. It's one thing to wear glasses for a visit to the movies, but every night watching television? Many viewers are only half watching television; they may be cooking or browsing the Internet, all in the manner of multitasking. This is difficult to do while wearing 3-D glasses.
These same issues affect production and post. Who wears the glasses? Is it just the stereographer?
The evolution to 3-D is not like HD. That was just bigger pictures. 3-D is a step change — in production techniques and in viewing habits. Over the next few years, we shall see if 3-D becomes mainstream in the home as well as the movie theatre.
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