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Tue 16 Sep 2008 12:46 PM

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Three cheers for 3D

The news that Philips has come out with a way to deliver 3D video using Blu-ray technology might finally be the breakthrough the medium has been looking for

3D video technology has been around for decades, but when I reminisce on my early years, the films that featured three-dimensional scenes played more for the novelty factor and had little else going for it (check out the atrocious Jaws 3, for example). 3D video exists today thanks to the continued success of stereoscopy.

In a nutshell, this means that the content is filmed specifically for 3D viewing, delivering two distinct images to the viewer’s eyes. It requires the user to wear glasses too, which you’ll all be familiar with if you’ve ever been to an IMAX cinema.

But this is inherently prohibitive for viewing. Firstly, the number of people able to enjoy a stereoscopic film is limited to the number of pairs you have. It’s also difficult to interact with others while wearing the silly-looking red and green glasses. The holy grail of 3D viewing is to be able to deliver 3D content directly to the viewer, without the need for such glasses. And Philips was the most recent consumer electronics maker to do that.

There’s been a raft of announcements and promises for such technology, but Philips’ recent demonstration at the IFA 2008 show in Berlin early this month was all the more resonant because it utilises High-Definition (HD) Blu-ray content. Its 2D-plus-Depth format can be enjoyed on both stereoscopic and auto-stereoscopic displays. The benefit this technology could bring is obvious; a wide range of current displays on the market would be compatible and content needn’t be specially filmed for 3D viewing. Potentially, any film could be adequately converted into this format. It’s also clever to harness the growing clout of Blu-ray to its cause.

But do we really need 3D television? Given the failure of previous 3D formats to become the de facto viewing standard, it does beg the question whether or not consumers need such a viewing mode. But in truth, consumers are likely to back a new video technology if the visual quality and viewing experience improves. The same is currently proving true with HD video when DVD-quality video was deemed good enough by most people’s standards. But if Philips or anyone else can offer 3D video, then consumers will be interested.

The problem is that while IMAX is starting to make up a not insignificant amount of a Hollywood film’s box office takings, the company itself isn’t doing too well, having reported a $12.2 million loss for the third quarter of last year. It took the release of The Dark Knight – the second highest grossing film in the US ever – to ease its pains, making a record $32 million for IMAX in just nineteen days since the film’s release in July, compared to the $400 million it made Stateside in all cinemas over the same period. So it’s not all plain sailing for 3D. The industry is fraught with niggling problems, such as higher ticket prices and the need to film content specifically for stereoscopy.

Ironically, the ensuring worldwide credit crunch might help its cause. People that want to spend less money stay home more, and those that stay home more tend to buy more DVDs and videos. But the content is by far the problem. Will watching an entire film in 3D on your 21-inch LCD screen really be satisfying? Surely the thrill of 3D at an IMAX cinema is seeing life-sized or larger-than-life action popping out of the screen. If you’re watching a scene of a couple disappearing into the distant horizon, would a small screen and a 3D image of two tiny people really involve viewers in the way the technology is meant too? The best parts of the IMAX experience, are arguably big explosions and huge action set-pieces.

So content and technology must go hand and hand and can’t be successful without one another. If 2D-plus-Depth takes off, the catalyst might be because there is 3D-specific content to view, giving an ability to choose between 3D and non-3D modes. It will certainly add longevity to your DVD collection if you could switch between 3D and normal modes.

Another thing to consider is what technology will follow 3D viewing. Holographic displays may sound like a distant future, but fuelled by the demand for medical and military situations, this could become reality sooner than expected. Holography too has been around for a while but should someone manage to succeed here, it would open the door to the possibilities of remote keyhole surgeries, real military simulations and many more commercial applications. After all, why just synthesize a 3D image from a flat display when you can make a 3D image?

All things considered, experts may be proved right in their belief that 3D viewing will start to become a mainstream reality in the next few years. But there are so many hurdles to that adoption and consumers will need to be educated about this new medium. Health concerns are another issue; it’s not a far stretch to imagine a rise in cardiac arrests when 3D goes mass market. So once content comes, so too will regulation. The good news is that we seem to be on the eve of that long and uncertain road.

See also: Intel and Dreamworks announce new 3D technology.

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