By Gordon Meyer
There are those who would tell you that the current cycle of 3D entertainment is on its last legs. They base this on the shrunken interest in 3D TVs domestically. But they’d be wrong. Yes, ESPN has announced the phase out of their 3D cable channel and 3D TV sales have gone down over the past few years. If you go to your local Best Buy, Target or Costco you’ll find only a handful of models on display. Seems that, at least for now, the CE manufacturers have decided to focus more on Smart TV technology and apps than 3D. But a look in my crystal ball tells me this is a short term hiccup and that 3D is far from dead.
Ever since the first 3D movies appeared in the 1920s (you read that correctly), there has been strong public interest in the format. That’s why producers kept bringing it back every 20 years or so with strong initial box office that ultimately tapered off. The problem was a combination of technical issues and filmmakers treating the medium as more than a mere novelty. Earlier analog incarnations of 3D were often physically painful for viewers thanks to a combination of ghostly double vision and just enough of a misalignment between the right and left images to cause eye strain.
Digital technology has largely solved the technical issues, at least theatrically and A-list filmmakers like James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Sam Raimi are making movies that use 3D as an effective storytelling tool rather than a gimmick. But it’s no longer a novelty to see movies in 3D and audiences are becoming resistant to that $3 surcharge at the box office. Plus, more and more movies released in 3D are being shot in 2D and converted in post with varying results. When done well, not only does a 2D-3D conversion look as good as, if not better than a movie shot with a 3D rig, many of the filmmakers I’ve spoken with have told me they actually have more creative flexibility shooting 2D and converting.
But I’ve been saying for a long time that 3D in the home will ultimately drive 3D in theatres than the other way around. And it appears that the need for glasses, especially when they’re the pricey active shutter glasses, has had more of an impact than I anticipated. Actually, it’s kind of a chicken and egg situation with not enough compelling native 3D content out there to justify the price difference between a 2D and 3D TV for consumers.
In the software industry, there’s a term called “Killer App,” which basically means a program or other type of content that’s so hot; so compelling, that consumers buy the hardware just to run that killer app. In the early days of the personal computer, programs like WordStar and Lotus 1-2-3 were the killer apps that sold tons of PCs. But video content is so diverse and fluid and demand for new content so insatiable that there is not likely to be a single 3D title so astounding as to serve as a killer app. Instead, the killer app is having the pool of quality 3D content grow to critical mass so that consumers are confident that, not only do they have plenty of 3D titles available now, but that there is a steady stream of quality 3D titles consistently in the distribution pipeline.
Here’s where it gets interesting. First of all, there are at least a dozen 3D movies scheduled for release between now and the end of the year according to the folks at RealD, the company whose passive glasses have become the de facto standard for most theatres running 3D and are now being used in a growing number of 3D capable TVs. More to the point, even though 3D theatrical attendance has plateaued domestically, 3D consumption both theatrically and in the home have significantly grown in the global market, especially in Europe and China. With international sales making such an important part of total content revenue, Hollywood studios will indefinitely continue to roll out tent pole movies in 3D.
Meanwhile, as I discussed in my recent article about the new Dolby 3D format, we’re finally getting very close to the point where glasses-free 3D TVs become a practical reality. I’ve seen prototypes of glasses-free displays for well over 10 years and for most of that time, they’ve been interesting glimpses at what could be, but were far from ready for prime time. But in the last year, I’ve seen some prototypes that are very nearly there. The folks at Dolby anticipate having product in stores within the next two years.
If the Dolby folks are right, having affordable glasses-free 3D TVs should be a shot in the arm for the format. This is assuming that A) the price difference between the glasses-free displays and conventional 3D displays is a modest one, making the decision to pay that premium an easy one; B) those displays have decent real-time 2D-3D converters so that consumers can enjoy as much 3D content as they want, even if they have to “make it” themselves; and C) that the pool of quality 3D entertainment continues to grow so that consumers have confidence they’ll have a steady stream of native quality 3D content available.
But the bottom line is, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors about the death of 3D are highly exaggerated.
Listen to Gordon talk about what's hot in consumer electronics and home entertainment as co-host of "The Digital Doctor" with Jeff Levy live on www.HealhyLife.net Wednesday mornings at 8:00 AM Pacific time.