No doubt about it, sometime in the next twenty years we’re heading for entertainment immersion. That’s experiencing entertainment in totally surrounding sight, sound, and probably other sensations. At its utmost, it’ll be what we call Virtual Reality (VR). The VR experience will get more and more realistic, as if you’re ‘really there.’ Until then, we’re going to have intermediate technology like 3-D TV.
With 3-D TV there can be very good sound, or at least a convincing surround of sound, so that voices, music, and sound effects seem to come from natural angles and locations. However, surround sound’s been commercially available for several decades, and with 3-D TV as with regular TV and movies, the sound production comes from a separate system. Visually, forget the surround; the image will still be in front of you, captured in a relatively diminutive video screen. This won’t be IMAX on TV. The images will appear to be more or less three-dimensional. How realistic the perception of depth will be depends in part on the screen’s ability to cleanly project the 3-D image, and as usual, quality will have its cost.
Did I mention that you have to wear special glasses? The various technologies behind 3-D all require two images; the process is essentially stereoscopy. For example, in the polarizing technology (the most commonly used for movies) one image is slightly off-center from the other and both images are superimposed on the film track. This technology hasn’t changed much since Arch Oboler did “Bwana Devil” in the ‘Golden Era’ of 3-D in 1952. You still need glasses, in this case polarized, to put the images together for your eyes/brain. Many people with slight vision problems may not be able to see the 3-D effect, or worse, develop headaches from watching it.
In fact, it’s the headache factor that has determined the fate of 3-D over the years – over two cycles. In the early 1950’s and again in the 1980’s there were resurgences of 3-D movies. It seems like every generation had to learn for itself that 3-D was usually: a) a gimmick and b) hard on the eyes.
So what’s different in 2009, as the present generation undergoes the wave of 3-D? For one thing, it’s cheaper to make 3-D (movies or TV) than ever. Thanks to digital processing, there is no longer a necessity for two cameras and a lot of tricky synchronizing. In fact, 2-D – the regular flat stuff – can be digitally processed into 3-D format. Speaking of format, industry as actually established a standard for 3-D on Blue-ray, which lowers production costs. As ever, 3-D movies command a premium ticket price. It’s a good bet that 3-D TV will feature mostly on premium channels. One more thing: The industry is betting that 3-D material will be much more difficult to pirate.
Perhaps you noticed that nothing in the preceding paragraph relates to a better experience for the viewer. This is almost all ‘advantage, industry’ – supply side stuff, not what audiences are demanding. Most of 3-D is what the movie and television industry want to push. Most, but not all. There are some things in it for the viewer: Current 3-D technology, while fundamentally similar to the past, has improved at the edges (so to speak). It’s cleaner, clearer and less headache producing. Perhaps more importantly, the actual content of the movies (and hopefully TV) will be envisioned, designed, shot, and processed with 3-D in mind. There will be fewer arrows ‘coming at you’ and more stories enhanced by the illusion of visual depth. Better still, some directors of note (e.g. Spielberg, Cameron) are using 3-D, and as in Cameron’s Avatar – it isn’t all for effect. It’s possible that some level of genuine integration between 3-D visual effects and the storytelling might occur, even on TV. The television networks in the United States are big on 3-D TV especially for sports.
When 3-D goes on TV, it may finally be on the way to becoming ‘routine.’ That’s where the leaders of the industry think it’s going. It’s going to be commonplace.
3-D will be involved with almost every form of display. It will become an integral part not only of video games and advertising (natural marriages) but also with the general user interface of computers. It will be like adding to the gestures of Apple’s iPhone the sense of touching a screen at depth – something like that. Wherever a digital image can be displayed, 3-D can be employed.
The spread of 3-D is what industry sees happening. The consumer electronics companies involved, such as Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and much of the computer industry are putting up huge investments in 3-D technology and production. The impact of their efforts is already starting to appear. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2010 was filled with the buzz of 3-D TV, and some products. By the holiday season of 2010, expect the 3-D TV push to be on in earnest.
What remains to be seen, and I do mean seen, is whether audiences and especially ‘the folks at home’ are prepared to spend significantly more money, wear glasses, and chance the occasional eye-strain for the non-surrounding illusion of three-dimensionality. Or will people wait for a more immersive technology – or at least 3-D without glasses?