July 4, 2010

A Brief History of 3D

When I posted a little feature on the recently-announced Nintendo 3DS and what it could mean for the future of 3D, I realized I'd never posted some thoughts I had on 3D after I saw Avatar last year. Bear with me as we travel back through the fourth dimension, time. ((Of course, thanks to the concept of space-time, time is no longer considered to be the fourth dimension.)) I never got around to publishing these paragraphs, because this was before I re-launched this site and I was questioning whether I really wanted to keep No Film School going. Here's what I wrote:

Everyone in the film industry is keeping close tabs on all things Avatar not only because it's a James Cameron film that might've cost 500 million dollars, ((But, of course, grossed nearly $3 billion...)) but because Hollywood is betting the future on 3D. Theatrical attendance has been trending downward for years, and young people increasingly spend their time social networking -- and, ahem, blogging -- in lieu of hitting the multiplex (some even social network in the theater, on their mobile phones). HDTV, Blu-ray, and home surround-sound systems have stolen much of theatrical's qualitative advantage, and the internet and VOD have stolen the convenience crown. Thus, 3D: a theatrical exclusive.

The question is, will 3D spread like surround sound (becoming a must-have for every theater), or will it spread like Smell-O-Vision (wafting nowhere fast)? I'm betting the former -- not because of existing consumer demand, but because the industry needs 3D to succeed to the point where they will manufacture demand at great cost. And while RealD is a step above previous 3D incarnations, the technology is only going to get better. Higher ticket prices for 3D films are a huge positive for both exhibitors and distributors, and the overall exclusivity of the technology makes it a must-succeed for the industry.

But major studios and theatrical exhibitors aren't he only ones with dollar signs in their eyes. As with surround sound, 3D technology will eventually migrate into our homes via TV and computer displays. As a result, electronics manufacturers are salivating like so many prior Cameron inventions (meaning, Aliens ((Okay, so they weren't Cameron inventions, but I couldn't resist; technically they're Cameron via Ridley Scott via H.R. Giger.))), as they can sell you new 3D TVs and displays as well as 3D incarnations of playback systems like Blu-ray and other set-top boxes. Suddenly your HDTV you were otherwise happy with needs to be replaced, and your wallet needs to be emptied. As with any new technology, these 3D displays and boxes will be priced at a premium over previous-gen technology, and the downward-trending pricing cycle will begin anew at a much higher price point (with correspondingly higher margins).

But 3D offers far more possibilities than just adding a third dimension to the passive experience of watching an immersive world unfold before your eyes, as in Avatar. The real future of 3D is unequivocally videogames. And not just displays: controllers are evolving from the original wired Nintendo handheld button-mashers into wireless, motion sensing controllers like the Wii and future offerings like Microsoft's Project Natal (which isn't even a controller, but rather a camera that senses your body movements, unencumbered by attachments of any kind). Combined with the increased immersiveness of 3D, these multi-axis, motion-sensing controllers point toward a future of virtual reality.

3D tech without glasses

As you can see, I abandoned the fourth paragraph, which was going to explore... 3D tech without glasses. I stopped writing because of the voice in my head that frequently asks "why am you spending so much time writing about technology?!?" Where I was going, however, was to wonder what a combination of motion-sensing controllers and 3D displays would look like (which is what I wrote about yesterday). Of course, most of what I was writing about after Avatar has already come to pass; 3D TVs line the shelves of electronics stores and ads for 3D TVs are everywhere. Microsoft's Project Natal is now known as Kinect, and will be arriving in November. The Nintendo 3DS won't be far behind.

Anyone interested in the Kinect or 3DS? I'm not particularly interested in handheld gaming, but I think this Nintendo DS-produced music video is amazing.

Your Comment


The point you raise about "the industry needs 3D to succeed to the point where they will manufacture demand at great cost." is a very valid one. But the real question is whether this is viably possible. Can the very level of demand required be manufactured fast enough and dynamically enough?

I tendered my own blog perspective entitled STEREO3D - CREATIVE BOON OR DESPERATE FINANCIAL PLOY? http://mikejonesnet.squarespace.com/journal/2009/10/4/stereo3d-creative-...

But all those arguments I dont think will matter or count in the end. I think there's the elephant in the room that the studios have ignored in a fundamental failing of risk-managment.

How do you spell Class Action law Suit...?

Already there are great swathes of health professionals saying that Stereo 3D forces the eyes to converge in an unnatural way meaning that for a period of time after watching a 3D movie many people cant judge distances correctly. How long do you reckon before some Joe Schmo gets in his car after watching a 3D movie , drives home, mis judges a turn, drives into a pole, is made a quadriplegic and some ambulance-chasing lawyer files a law suit? Then everyone comes out of the woodwork with their own eyesight issues from 3D glasses and 3D TV and then there's a Class-Action for millions on the cards. A law suit that will inevitably settle out of court and the price tag will scare the crap out of the studios and 3D will die as quickly as it came.

To doubt the viability of this scenario is to seriously underestimate the litigious nature of American society.

Or to put another perspective on the fact that the studios failed to do their cost/risk analysis...

It has been estimated that at least 15% of people in the world cannot actually SEE Stereo3D - astigmatisms, colour blindness and a host of common optical abnormalities. A very conservative estimate would also be that at least 15% of people would choose NOT to watch 3D because it gives them a headache or vertigo (my wife is one and at least half a dozen of my colleagues that i know of) So thats 30% of the world market ruled out right there. And thats before we take into account that at least another 10% of viewers (and thats VERY conservative) simply dont care about 3D and so wont pay the extra for the ticket or waste money on a 3D TV.

So now we are at 40% of people ruled out of the 3D market.

Whats sort of morons at the the Hollywood studios are betting the house on a business model that is immediately irrelevant to 4)5 of the movie-going public?

And then we go back to the law-suit issues.

I, as with any other industry pundit, could raise a 1000 reasons why 3D will or wont work to 'save' the established business model of theatrical release cinema. But its all a mute point.

Its a business model built on just 60% of the population and that big fat class-action law suit is coming.

It doesn't matter how good it looks or how many big name directors get into it - Stereo 3D is doomed to be the niche fad it's always been.

Love the blog. keep up the good work. Ironically i send my film-school students to it regularly.



July 5, 2010 at 2:24AM, Edited September 4, 7:26AM


Mike - thank you for a truly insightful comment. I hadn't thought about the lawsuit issue - I wonder if it's something they could avoid with a disclaimer at the beginning of any 3D presentation? "Those with astigmatism or any other condition that may cause post-3D depth perception problems... "

Thanks for sending your students this way - glad to have 'em!

July 5, 2010 at 7:29AM, Edited September 4, 7:26AM

Ryan Koo

I think you're right, its a matter of time before the warnings start to appear. But 'duty of care' principles are not wholly assuaged by a disclaimer. The argument, when it comes, I think will be that right now the studios and companies 'know' that 3D 'may cause' health and safety issues and so their 'product' is dangerous. It actually doesn't matter whether this is true or not, all that is required is a gung-ho Lawyer and a few medical professionals willing to support the claim. There's obviously no shortage of lawyers and a wide number of optometrist doctors who have already come out to say 3D is 'bad'... So now they are just waiting on the first 'accident'. I feel cynical saying that, but I am astounded that this scenario hasn't been considered by the studios.

What bothers me most about 3D is it's push has nothing to do with cinema, aesthetics, narrative or experience. The push for 3D has only one imperative - to re-inforce and prop up a failing business model. Rather than find a new non-hierachical structure for distribution (one where theatrical release is a part of the mix but not the peak), the studios have opted to re-inforce the pyramid. Frankly, the theatrical release trickle down model is not worth saving. Less than 2% of screen-media content in the world is consumed via the cinema theatre. And my home theatre gives me a better picture and more comfy chair than any cinema ive ever been to - AVATAR on a 42" LCD screen, on BluRay in 2D looks BETTER, SHARPER and MORE vibrant than 3D in the theatre))

For many years now Hollywood studios have treated theatrical release as nothing more than advertising for the DVD sales. In fact in many studio productions the costs for prints and theatre distribution comes out of the 'marketing' budget for the film.

I may even go out a limb and suggest that the traditional Theatrical release model is the big enemy to independent filmmaking. Far too many student and indie filmmakers pour great wads of cash into theatrical prints and shoot in aspect ratios only applicable to theatrical release and have post-production workflows geared to expensive theatrical release, and Why..? When the % of their audience who will ever see their film in the theatre is minuscule? Such efforts serve only to present themselves as somehow worthy to make their next film for theatrical release. The cycle is reinforced for a tiny audience at great expense. 3D is nothing more than the big studios way of reinforcing the high-costs of production that justify executive salaries.

Anyway, I'll put my soapbox away now.


July 5, 2010 at 3:25PM, Edited September 4, 7:26AM