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Why 3D Home Theater Will (and Should) Fail

Oct 18, 2010 12:55 PM, By Jason Bovberg


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What a difference 10 months makes! In less than a year, we've gone from the intense three-dimensional renaissance ushered in mostly by James Cameron's epic, digital 3D fantasy Avatar to the lowly 3D death knell of Jackass 3D. In late 2009, everyone—particularly home-theater enthusiasts—was excited about the prospects of 3D at the cinema and at home. But just like the 3D boom of the 1980s, excitement has quickly turned to boredom, due mostly to overexposure and a frustrating mishandling of the technology.

After the perfection of Avatar's 3D care and handling, greedy studios quickly saw the opportunity to translate in-production films to 3D with a careless postproduction conversion process called “dimensionalization.” The result was a haphazard, blurry, dark, headache-inducing 3D experience. Duped audiences felt robbed, thanks to the hefty surcharge accompanying 3D films at the box office, and people were increasingly unlikely to return for a technology they deemed inconsistent and expensive (especially in this economy). Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (March) was the first betrayer, bringing in $335 million (domestic), but Clash of the Titans (April) more than halved that with $164 million (April), The Last Airbender (July) saw more of a drop at $132 million, and Piranha 3D (August) saw the nadir at $25 million.

Even if we're talking about films made specifically in 3D, the percentage of viewers choosing the 3D experience over the 2D experience has been decreasing. How to Train Your Dragon (March) saw 68 percent of its audience choose 3D, Toy Story 3 (July) dropped to 60 percent, and Despicable Me (July) saw that percentage crash to 45 percent. Jackass 3D opened very strong last weekend, but many see that phenomenon as merely a confirmation of an age-old perception of 3D technology: It's a gimmick.

A joke.

That's certainly the common perception now, as 3D is trying to make inroads in the home theater.

To watch 3D in your home cinema, you need not only a new 3D-capable TV but also—yes—a pair of expensive, battery-powered plastic 3D glasses (along with backup batteries) for each viewer. That translates to a pair of glasses for every family member and every guest who visits for movie night. They cost about $100 a pair. To bring the 3D experience to your home, then, you're looking at an introductory price of over $3,000—for just your immediate family. Yes, Toshiba has recently announced its not-yet-final development of a glasses-free 3D TV, but even after that technology becomes real and approaches affordability, will the public be convinced?

When I see a 3D TV being demo'd in a consumer electronics store, I see people stopping to check it out, mildly interested, and then moving on.They're not even close to making a purchase. Because here's the situation: Despite the benefits of digital production and projection, 3D in theaters has never really added anything lasting to the experience of filmmaking. Clearly, studios and most filmmakers don't know how to use it consistently and successfully; most critics think it's the bane of their professional lives; and audiences now see "3D" in trailers and groan in derision. These aren't the right ingredients for 3D's translation to the home.

And sure enough, according to a new DisplaySearch report, only about 1.6 million 3D sets will ship this year—about 2 percent of all flatpanel TVs shipped. An especially interesting finding of the report says that, at least in Western Europe, customers are purchasing fewer than one pair of glasses per 3D TV, meaning they're buying the 3D sets, but they aren't using them to watch 3D content. The findings certainly don't speak to the existence of a seriously excited audience of consumers.

It comes down to content. There's just not that much of it. Compare this situation with the evolution of HDTV from standard-def. There was never a question about the kind of content HDTVs could handle. It could handle everything—only better. Our entire history of film, for example, is already high-def. HDTVs merely bring out the best of what's already there—thousands and thousands of films, just ripe for the choosing. In the case of 3D TV, we have very few 3D movies to choose from, and, it could be argued, even fewer good 3D films. If I had a 3D TV, I suppose I'd get an occasional kick out of watching Avatar, maybe a selection of nostalgic 3D films I got a kick out of in the '80s, a selection of animated children's movies, and not much else. For that reason—for this viewer, anyway—the prospect of 3D at home holds very little potential value. Heck, even at the theater, it's a passing fancy.

Perhaps you're the type of viewer for whom content such as sports and nature programs will have more influence on your decision. It's true that those types of content will offer more immediate benefits. But I wonder if—after the initial novelty of putting on the glasses and experiencing the gimmick of a 3D football flying through space—audiences will find continuing appeal in the technology. Even after glasses-free 3D becomes real, there's the very real possibility that 3D at home will become more a distraction than a benefit. We just can't seem to escape the notion that 3D is about jokey comin'-at-ya effects and not about enhancing the experience of art and media. Maybe we don't want to escape that notion.

When Avatar surged into digital 3D and IMAX cinemas last year, I was caught up in possibilities of 3D at home. At the time, I said that James Cameron, with his movie, might "single-handedly pave the way toward a rich, immersive 3D experience in the home theater." That conclusion seems now to be a forgotten, overly optimistic dream, thanks in part to the way Hollywood has mishandled 3D over the past 10 months, but thanks mostly to our own feelings about what 3D should be—and where and when we want to experience it.

Jason Bovberg is a senior editor for Windows IT Pro and SQL Server magazine and a regular contributor to Residential AV Presents Connected Home. He specializes in networking, mobile and wireless, hardware, and home computing. He has more than 15 years of experience as a writer and editor in magazine, book, and special-interest publishing. He can be reached at jbovberg@windowsitpro.com.

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