Four Eyes: Why 3D tech will have to lose the glasses

By Eric Balaz

3D technology is everywhere; in movies, TVs, video games, and phones. Many companies are putting it into their devices, hoping to cash in on the trend. According to Future Source Consulting, upwards of 11 million 3D televisions will be sold by the end of 2011. This is a staggering number, but is their popularity because people want the newest, hottest piece of technology, or is it that 3D TVs are a genuinely superior upgrade over 2D sets?

While the technology maybe cutting edge, the idea is nothing new. 3D viewing, or “stereopsis”, comes from English inventor Charles Wheatstone, who coined the term in 1838. It works by placing two very similar images over one another. The images are each viewable by only one eye and are slightly offset, imitating how your brain perceives the real world with a different point of view for each eye. This gives the illusion of depth. In 1894 another English inventor, William Friese Greene, patented a method of 3D viewing by placing two images side by side and using a headset to offset the image. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that 3D movies finally took off with the release of “House of Wax”, starring Vincent Price. The famous red lens/green lens technology caused nausea and headaches. It quickly went out of favor and wasn’t revived until the late 70’s early 80’s. Again the added cost and viewer discomfort limited its appeal.

However, the release of a little film called Avatar in 2009 showcased a far more viable 3D technology. Now 3D entertainment is not only a movie theatre experience, but can be had at home on TVs and in the palm of your hands with Nintendo’s 3DS, or HTC’s EVO 3D, a phone that takes and displays 3D pictures and videos. The Nintendo 3DS and the HTC EVO 3D are examples of how 3D technology is quickly becoming a must-have piece of technology.

The key to their success? Glasses-free 3D. Until now the only way to view 3D was to wear glasses so that each eye only sees the image intended for it. Nintendo found a graceful solution to the problem; instead of the viewer wearing glasses why doesn’t the screen wear them? This “Parallax Barrier” essentially redirects one image to the right eye, and the other to the left eye.

This is the same system that is used on HTC’s EVO 3D. The reason that this feature is not used for larger screens is that it requires the viewer to look at it a certain distance away and at a certain spot on the screen; meaning only one person, sitting in the right spot, could enjoy the 3D. This is an important step in the right direction for 3D, because according to technology site cnet.com, 57% of people surveyed said the glasses were a major reason they were unlikely to buy a 3D TV. If spectacle-free 3D technology could be replicated on big 3D displays, the number of people willing to buy 3D TVs would skyrocket.

While there have been improvements in the home market for 3D products, 3D movies seem to be taking a hit at the box office. When James Cameron’s “Avatar” was released nearly 80% of the audience saw it in 3D. This figure has yet to be matched, but even more surprising is that more people are opting for the 2D tickets rather than the more expensive 3D experience. For example, the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film saw less than half of their ticket sales go to 3D, and Kung Fu Panda 2 in 3D made only 68 million dollars, a shadow of the 2D original.

This raises the question of, ‘Is 3D really an improvement?’ It looks like the answer might well be “no”. The problem arises from the fact that, instead of investing in an engaging and well-developed story, movie producers focus on gimmickry to sell tickets. Look at “Avatar”; in essence the film was a rehashed story of greedy outsiders oppressing a tribe of noble primitives. It is a story told many times before, but what made it the highest grossing film of all time was the technology. While it made excellent use of the extra dimensions, subsequent 3D films have failed to exploit its potential in any meaningful way. Expensive technology that isn’t engaging or necessary has a short shelf life, but with the innovations by Nintendo and HTC, 3D could stick around for good.

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