I remember when I was little and I went to the Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas. I must have been seven or eight. I saw a lot of great things on that trip, but nothing was so enthralling as the IMAX theater. The movie we watched must have been named something cheesy and mundane, like “Undersea Adventure”. It was a typical educational/exploration movie about the ocean shallows and depths. Coral, sea cucumbers, and octopii, I had seen it all before. But never in 3D. Never mind that it was the old-school 3D, the kind that you had to view with the red and blue glasses. It pales in comparison to what we have today, but to my innocent little eyes, it was convincing enough to be real. I was so taken in by the visuals that I actually reached out to grab the pink coral and came up with a fistful of red hair from the lady sitting in front of me. It was so visceral, so believable that I actually thought I could touch the creatures casually floating in front of me.
These days the talking heads seem to be convinced that 3D is simply a gimmick, an understandable viewpoint considering the limitations of the current technology. Those limitations aside, 2009 and 2010 seemed to be setting 2011 up as a year for 3D to enter the mainstream consciousness. The 3D film Avatar had become a major success, the Nintendo 3Ds had been announced to much intrigue and 3D televisions were becoming available. The trend that had finished 2010 seemed to be carrying into 2011. At CES, 3D capable cameras and phones were only outnumbered by the copious numbers of active and passive 3D glasses strewn across the show floor. Unfortunately, much of the steam from CES was lost early in the first quarter of the year, and most of the technology did not live up to its promise. Limited viewing angles, headaches and an abundance of other issues have left critics tongue wagging at the perceived failure of the technology. I, however, am still quite convinced that it will form not only a valuable, but integral part of our future.
Let’s get one thing straight: gimmicks are little superficial novelties or enhancements used to boost sales of an item. The toys found in boxes of Captain Crunch are gimmicks. The white iPhone is a gimmick. When a technology adds a real perceptible value or advantage, it is not a gimmick. Although there are numerous instances where 3D does fail to add value, there are circumstances when the inclusion of that the extra dimension is not only artful, but meaningful. A prime example of this is the movie theater. It is where the 3D experience is most tightly controlled, and not coincidentally, where 3D works best. Part of what made Avatar such an enjoyable experience wasn’t the script or the acting or the plot, but the immersion, the feeling of actually being a part of that world.
The current problem with 3D is twofold. First, the technology is not far along enough to be consumed on a mass scale in an uncontrolled environment such as the home, and secondly, that the medium cannot be distributed effectively because of the lack of portals and content. Let me address the first issue. In any technology, iteration is necessary to refine the experience into something pleasant. What constitutes pleasant is a circumstantial problem. What might be pleasant and expected in a movie theater may not be pleasant or expected in the home. Theater-watching is a venue-specific event that has a few extra requirements that we don’t mind putting up with. Putting on glasses for a 3D movie in the theater feels cool, putting on 3D glasses in the house is lame, uncomfortable, and we feel stupid when we see ourselves in the mirror when we take a bathroom break. The portal problem is a result of the early stage of the technology. Who wants a 3D phone with half the resolution, twice the headaches and no apps? Required first are comfortable, usable devices. Then the apps will follow. Then the technology will boom.
One of the tallest hurdles the entertainment industry must overcome is that of detachment. When we interact with a display, we don’t want to feel isolated or extracted from what is occurring on-screen. The bleachers will always be preferable to the couch. Immersion will always be preferable to abstraction. A display should truthfully recreate what is occurring in actuality. Advances to color and high resolution have made that goal more feasible. The next logical step is adding the third dimension.
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