Is 3-D another fad?

With some 25 movies being released in 3-D this year and 31 3-D movies on tap for 2011, Hollywood continues with unabashed enthusiasm over the latest incarnation of stereographic entertainment. With recent 3-D broadcasts of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, FIFA's World Cup Soccer and NASCAR plus the launch of 3-D cable and satellite networks, neither is the broadcast community without its own version of 3-D fever. But just as some fevers have ebb and flow characteristics, the history of 3-D popularity is replete with Mount McKinley-like highs and Death Valley lows.

The birth of 3-D

Incredible as it sounds, 3-D was born even before photography. In June 1838, Sir Charles Wheatstone, familiar to most TV engineers for his invention of the Wheatstone Bridge, first described a process and a viewer that he named a stereoscope. The process was to prepare identical drawings that were slightly offset as a function of binocular vision and then view them through his stereoscope, resulting in an image that had perceived depth. It wasn't until 1839 that Charles Daguerre, normally credited as the father of photography, described his process for producing latent images, and latency was what all previous attempts at photography lacked.

Oliver Wendell Holmes' invention of the handheld stereograph viewer in 1859 started the first of numerous 3-D fads. This remarkably new experience of the time became wildly popular only to quickly fade.

The next 3-D fad came and went with the Victorian era. The then rising U.S. standard of living afforded many the luxury of steamship travel abroad and the enchantment with faraway places. Consequently, a well-appointed living room was not considered complete without handheld or floor stand-mounted stereo viewers and the requisite box of stereogram photos of scenes from London, Paris and the Egyptian pyramids. Once again, the 3-D fad peaked and faded, and it didn't seriously arise again until the 1940s. The iconic Gen. DwightEisenhower in victory photos with a Stereo Realist camera around his neck must have done wonders for Kodak's sales at the time.

The next 3-D fad of note occurred with the 1952 3-D release of “Bwana Devil.” This film is often erroneously attributed as being the first 3-D movie. Actually, the silent film “Power of Love,” released in 1922, was the first, and while it drew the curious, it could not ignite a 3-D fad. “Bwana Devil” drew huge crowds to the theaters, and it kicked off a spate of 3-D movies as varied as “House of Wax” and “Kiss Me Kate.” But once again, the fad died out after several years.

In 1969, an attempt was made to rekindle 3-D interest with the release of the soft-porn movie “The Stewardesses.” Though it became the highest grossing 3-D movie ever, even porn could not engender sustainable interest in 3-D at the time.

3-D today

That brings us to the current day, where we are in the midst of yet another 3-D fad. Unlike those of the past, today's fad, however, has multiple underpinnings. Today's 3-D entertainment is not just a film industry phenomenon. Abetting Hollywood in this latest foray into 3-D is computer gaming, Blu-ray packaged media and the broadcast TV industry. From newspapers running special 3-D insert sections to “Playboy” magazine's special 3-D centerfold, even the publishing industry is dabbling in 3-D. But the real push comes from the consumer electronics industry, where with HDTV now a mature market, receiver prices have dropped, sales have slowed and profits are down dramatically. Thus, the CE industry is motivated to create an aura around 3-D as the next new must-have product.

But has this current 3-D fad already run its course? The percentage of 3-D to 2-D gross box office receipts has been steadily declining this year, and 3-D TVs and Blu-ray players haven't been flying off the shelves. One major market research firm is projecting year-end 3-D TV household penetration at less than 1 million worldwide — a number lost in rounding given the hundreds of millions of TV households that exist worldwide. Not to be overlooked, this same research concluded that only 100,000 or so of those 3-D TV households would actually be viewing 3-D content.

So is 3-D technology a fad, niche entertainment medium or a new, permanent slice of the content delivery pie? It's probably too soon to tell. The Japanese are already trying to shore it up with the promotion of new 3-D porn titles. One only has to examine the early history of VHS to understand the impact that porn can have on new distribution media. Will porn drive 3-D to success? It hasn't in the past, but it will be interesting to follow this time.

In writing this column, an old Bible passage, applying equally to both porn and 3-D, kept coming to mind: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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