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3D - White Elephant or Pipe Dream?

February 20, 2009 By Geoffrey Morrison



3D is getting a big push both at movie theaters and in TVs at home, but does anyone care? Should anyone care?

I was a big fan of 3D. When I was 12. All those things zooming out from the screen made even Captain Eo watchable.

But 3D has been "just around the corner" for years. Why aren't we any closer?

A few months ago I went to the world's first 3D broadcast of a football game. It was a game between the Chargers and the Raiders broadcast at a movie theater. I left before halftime. Granted, the game was horrid, but that wasn't the reason.

The 3D was unwatchable.

3D?Here's the problem. When you're watching a normal football game, when the camera cuts from a high shot from the stands (showing the whole field) to a low shot (say, of the coaches and players on the side of the field), you don't notice the depth of field changing.

On the former, everything is essentially flat.

On the latter, there are players in the foreground, coaches in the middle, and the stands in the background.

Other than the coaches, everything else is out of focus.

With 3D, that change is viciously jarring.

From shot to shot, the depth changes. It's nauseating. One moment, the action on screen is one distance, the next moment, the action is farther and closer at the same time, than back again. It messes with your mind.

For that matter, this "z" focus, or how much depth is in the image, seems to be done on the fly. And it was rocky, at best.

To add to it, for technical reasons, the image was 720p so they can use existing equipment. But I'll tell you, it looked really soft. In a home this probably wouldn't be as big of an issue, but in a theater it's very noticeable.

Yes, I'm sure they'll get better at it and work the bugs out, but that leads us to our original question?

Why?

I didn't get it. There was nothing that the 3D "experience" added to the game. It was a crappy game in 2D, it was a crappy game in 3D. No more enjoyable. Would a great game be made better in 3D? I can't imagine why.

I've seen several movies in 3D at the theater. I'll overlook the gimmicky stuff to show that it's 3D, such as something jutting out into the audience for no good reason. They did the same thing in the early days of surround sound. If there is more 3D, hopefully this will calm down.

In all those movies I saw, there was only one thing, one moment, where the 3D offered something other than hassle, extra price, and gross glasses.

During the otherwise excruciating Beowulf there was a few moments of snow. This snow seemed to fall from the ceiling of the movie theater down into the audience. I wasn't the only one impressed, judging from the gasps around me.

Yep, that's it.

It never really looks right. I, at least, am always conscious of the cumbersome glasses that have to fit (always poorly) over my current glasses.

So why the big push? A cynical friend of mine thinks it's to force convince the movie theater owners to upgrade to digital projectors. Digital projectors save studios tons of money in film printing costs.

Then there's the light. The actual spec for 3D movies is around 5 foot-Lamberts through the glasses.

5

Your TV at home puts out at least 10x that. Regardless of how dark the room is, that's not a lot of light.

So it's dim, doesn't look right, doesn't add much to the experience other than gimmicky moments throwing things at the audience. I know, let's put it in the home.

So I guess my problem is multi-fold. The implimentation isn't there, and the content isn't there. Sounds like a good start.

Home 3D

The remaining DLP rear-projection TVs offer a 3D mode. Several LCD and plasma companies are talking about or demoing off 3D models. While there is a lot more content possible in a home environment (pretty much any computer game), I was less than impressed when I tried out a few of these systems in my own home.

And you'll still need to have, and keep, glasses for it to work.

But I want it. Still.

But even given all that, I love the idea of 3D. But it's hard to love actual 3D. It's like rooting for the Cubs. No matter how much you want it to happen, it's always "next year."

As a Red Sox fan, I feel I can be condescending on that front. Sorry.

There is a glimmer of hope. King of the World James Cameron has vowed that every movie he'll make from now on will be in 3D. That's some mighty horsepower, even if he hasn't made a movie in a decade (I defy you to name a director with a better track record both in quality and in success).

Panasonic 3D Plasma at CES 2009And then there's Panasonic. At CEATEC last year we were shown a demo of their 103-inch plasma running at 120 Hz (an impressive feat in its own right).

Why do I feel this version of the tech will do better than others?

Because it uses pretty much all existing technology (other than the TV, which is different of course).

On the disc are two 1080i feeds, one for each eye. The TV deinterlaces them and shows you both. So you're getting 60Hz per eye.

The result is 3D motion significantly smoother than you've seen before with 3D.

And if the original material is sourced from film or 1080i video, you get no decrease in resolution using 1080i on the disc instead of 1080p. Best of all, its fraking bright, like a TV should be. Sure you still have to wear the glasses, but if the content is worth it, I'll make do.

So the Blu-ray disc itself is the same, the player is only slightly different (not enough to effect cost much), you transmit it using standard HDMI.

What's the catch? Well, other TV manufacturers are going to have to sign on to the way Panasonic does it to create some sort of standard. Fat chance. But we'll see.

Unfortunately, this means 3D isn't coming anytime soon. We'll probably see more 3D movies in the theaters (especially if Avatar does well), but in the home? Not around this corner.

Maybe the next one.

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