Future Tense: 3DTV Redux

Maximum PC Staff

I saw my first 3D movie in 1953. It was House Of Wax , starring Vincent Price, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, and featured a pretty scary newcomer named Charles Bronson. It was directed by Andre de Toth, who ironically only had one good eye.

To this day, it remains one of my favorite 3D movies, and I wish Warner Bros. would get off their butts and release it on 3D Blu-Ray, perhaps a double set with Phantom Of The Rue Morgue , starring Karl Malden. I’d also like Universal to release a box set of The Creature From The Black Lagoon , Revenge Of The Creature , The Creature Walks Among Us (not in 3D) and It Came From Outer Space .

There are a lot of other classic films made in 3D that deserve to be released on Blu-Ray: Kiss Me Kate , Dial M For Murder (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Grace Kelly and Ray Milland), Money From Home (Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis), The French Line (Jane Russell), Miss Sadie Thompson (Rita Hayworth, Jose Ferrer), and more.

Most of the negatives still survive and a set of good Blu-Ray transfers would find a home on the shelves of many 3D enthusiasts. A lot of the 3D films made in the fifties were pretty miserable, nothing more than hasty exploitation efforts, but there are still some that have earned a place in history as an important artifact of the time. I’d include Cat Women Of The Moon and Robot Monster on that list—particularly Robot Monster which is arguably one of the worst movies ever made, but its 3D was some of the best. Go figure.

Over a year ago, I wrote in this space that 3D TV is inevitable in the home theater market. I still feel that way, and I’ll explain why—

But first let me acknowledge the inevitable complaints that are going to show up in the comment thread. “I can’t see 3D” “It’s a gimmick” “It’s just another way for the big corporations to loot my wallet” “It’s a fad” “I don’t like it” “It’s too expensive” “It doesn’t work well” “It gives me a headache” “I don’t like the goofy glasses” and “I don’t want to be bothered.” “The technology isn’t perfect yet.” These complaints show up in every comment thread about 3D TV and they will probably show up here as well.

I’m not dismissing the complaints. They are real for the people who are complaining. Nevertheless, many people do like 3D TV and despite many justifiable objections and concerns, 3D TV is inevitable.

First of all, any TV with a refresh rate of 120hz is 3D capable. You might not buy a TV for its 3D capability, but all the high-end sets now have refresh rates of 120hz or 240hz. Some manufacturers are even flirting with 480hz. Plasma sets have 600hz refresh rates. It costs little for the manufacturer to add an emitter and advertise the set as 3D ready. You might not want a 3D set, but when you buy your next big screen TV, the top of the line models will all be 3D capable, and that feature is steadily working its way down the product line, with more and more sets having that capability every year.

There are two kinds of 3D TVs, passive and active. Passive sets use circular polarized glasses, the same kind you’d use for a Real-3D presentation. But such sets interleave the scan lines, so odd-numbered scan lines go to one eye and even-numbered scan lines go to the other. On a 1080P set, you’re only getting 540 scan lines to each eye, half the hi-def resolution. Some people can see the scan lines, others sit far enough back and don’t notice them.

More common are sets that use active-shutter glasses . These glasses are a little heavier and need to be recharged every 70 hours. The TV alternates left and right eye images and the glasses are synchronized by an RF or infra-red emitter, so each eye sees the correct eye image at 60 frames per second.

There is some light loss in both systems, but not significant, and you can always pump up the brightness. Polarized sets are less prone to ghosting or double-images. Active shutter sets have greater resolution.

A justifiable concern for any 3D fan is that source material remains limited and some of it just isn’t worth the effort. And some of the travelogues have artifacts where the depth effect gets confused if there is fast sideways motion. I suspect it has something to do with the way the image is encoded and delivered. I also expect that this will eventually be resolved as the technology continues to improve.

Most 3D Blu-Ray movies look good on a home screen, several have been spectacular.  DirecTV has five 3D channels. They repeat a lot of the material, but they’re also increasing the variety every month. DirecTV has also been showing 3D movies on a pay-per-view channel.  So if you’re a 3D enthusiast, you do have an increasing menu of films to watch, with more being released every month.

If you’re going to get a new set—3D or not—get the biggest screen you can afford, especially if you want a theatrical experience. The bigger your screen, the more dramatic the effect—especially for 3D. 1080p 3D projectors are also becoming affordable and would allow you to fill a whole wall. So far, these are all active-shutter. (There are companies that will set up two projectors in sync so you can use polarized glasses too.)

Right now, 3D TV is mostly in the homes of early adopters and enthusiasts. Given the state of the economy, it’s likely to remain that way for another year or two, maybe even longer. But that gives manufacturers an opportunity to continue improving the technology and studios to expand the number of available films in release. The big studios have recognized that having a 3D release of a film can add as much as 40% to the box office gross. A 3D film is kind of like going on a dark ride at an amusement park, it has an “event” quality. So most of the major pictures planned the summer season and the holiday season will have a 3D release.

Remember, the studios, the theaters, and the TV manufacturers have invested billions into 3D technology. The box office numbers justify continuing that investment for the theaters. It’s going to take a lot longer for the home market to catch up because the operative equation is always the availability of content and the availability of hardware on which to view the content, but as more and more event films have 3D releases on Blu-Ray, as more and more Blu-Ray players and sets arrive in homes, 3D capability will continue to spread.

As long as 3D requires “the goofy glasses” it will exist in its own kind of specialty niche—the same way laserdiscs existed in the eighties. The laserdisc never became mainstream, but it had a strong enough customer base to justify a large library of releases. 3D TV that requires glasses will never replace HDTV as we have it today. But having a set with 3D capability will make it more likely that you will watch “event television” and selected movies in 3D.

Titanic and Star Wars are being re-released in 3D. The next Star Trek movie is (allegedly) planned for 3D. Those audiences will turn out and they will very likely buy the 3D discs for their home libraries as well. Someday the Super Bowl or the Rose Parade will be broadcast in 3D and you can bet a lot of people will pull out their 3D glasses for that. Perhaps hit shows like Glee or Big Bang Theory or Hawaii Five-O will someday shoot special episodes in 3D and fans of those shows will turn on their 3D channels just for that.

After nearly eight years of success in the theaters and with a growing number of 3D films released every year, and many more scheduled, I think it’s fair to say that 3D has found its audience and become a mainstream format in its own right. I expect that the same audience that loves 3D movies will also embrace 3D for the home-theater experience. It’s just going to take a while.

What do you think?

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