The future of 3D TV

I am a geek. Well, I was. But I’m starting to doubt it now. You see part of being a geek is adopting new technologies way ahead of the sensible majority of the population. Not only am I a geek, but I’m a geek who has spent 25 years in the film and television business creating and delivering the coolest new products to help put fantastic images on your screens, but now I feel like I’m losing my way. Why? 3D TV.

First out let’s just clear something up, because geekiness is also about pedantry. It’s not 3D. I’ve got to call it that because everyone else does and if I don’t you won’t know what I’m talking about. The point is that it is an optical illusion that gives us just two of the cues we use to perceive the 3D world in which we live to make us think that what we are looking at is (a bit) three dimensional.

Just for geek completeness we use monocular cues of accommodation (focussing), angular declination (further away things are closer to the horizon), motion parallax (relative motion of objects) and image analysis (lots of clever stuff in our brains), as well as the binocular cues of stereopsis (the difference between the images seen by the left and right eyes) and convergence (how cross-eyed we have to make our eyes in order to focus on closer objects). Are you getting a sense for geek pedantry now?

In fact, to create 3D film and television we use stereoscopic photography that produces an illusion of depth, so let’s call it “stereo” from now on.

Why has it got me questioning my geekiness? Because I just don’t understand why the entire television industry has itself wound up into a frenzy of excitement about this technology of the 1840s[i]. Actually, my cynical geek-self has a good idea, but I’ll save that till later.

Let’s start by looking at stereo from the consumers’ point of view. In the cinema, we go to enjoy a special event of watching a film. We sit in a carefully constructed environment with seats positioned for optimal enjoyment of the image and sound. (Actually, not that optimally in my local cinema where the security lights spill onto the screen. Grrr!). Putting on the geeky specs to enjoy a 3D film is just fine (as long as Robert Zemeckis wasn’t the director in which case you need the additional geeky sick bag). It works, and for Pixar’s “Up” it works really, really well. I see the benefit and understand why the likes of Pixar, who can create a 3D version of their movies at a relatively modest additional cost, want to differentiate what they offer in the theatres to what we can enjoy at home.

The film industry has hit this particular vein of gold before. In 1969 The Stewardesses started playing in California. “See the lusty stewardesses leap from the screen onto your lap” certainly pulled in the crowds (mostly geeks I suspect) over the years, out grossing (figuratively, literally?)the likes of “Love Story”. IMDB estimates total gross sales of $25m. You can buy your own copy of the 40th anniversary edition.

At home, we’re still struggling to move from Standard Definition to High Definition, analogue to digital, and some folks (30,000 in the UK) are still watching black and white televisions. But what of the experience?

In order to get a good stereoscopic effect you need conditions to be favourable. For systems that use glasses you’ll need to find them (“Mum, where’s the remote?”). Then there is the issue that they absorb some light, so the television picture will have to be brighter. Get the wrong type of polarisation and as your head lolls sideways, the picture will black out. For those clever systems that don’t require glasses you need to sit in EXACTLY the right position. No “budge up Jonnie and let grandma sit down”. Does all of this start to sound more like a cinema than your living room (or kitchen, which is where many TVs are)? Then there is the tiredness and did I mention vomiting?

Even if you get it all right and enjoy your movie in stereo, what next? I guess some folks will want to watch football, the Olympics or Wimbledon in stereo (I foresee more of those Stewardess type camera shots). One of the complaints about HD is that you see too much detail like skin blemishes; do you really want the newsreader’s pimple leaping into your lap?

There are two tradeshows that drive the professional end of the television industry, in the appropriately Stewardess type locations of Las Vegas and Amsterdam. For the last two years the majority of manufacturers have been demonstrating their stereo-readiness. The television set manufacturers have been racing to be the first to market with stereo sets, having enjoyed selling 10m new television sets in 2009 (what!) they figure stereo will help them repeat the trick. The Blu-ray folks have figured out a standard specification, the production manufacturers have been showing cameras and software to handle 3D and we’ve all lined up to put on the specs and gawp at the images; “yep, stereo”.

Why? I think television has lost its way. The perfect storm of PVRs, the internet, the economic downturn, and more than anything else Google, has whipped the magic carpet out from underneath the industry and it is in freefall. Stereo is a sliver of hope and they’re grabbing at it with both hands. Just remember that they’ve done so out of panic, not because folks want to watch stereo at home or are likely to enjoy it they do.

[i] Charles Wheatstone first described Stereopsis in 1838 and was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1840 for his explanation of binocular vision. As part of this research he created stereo drawings and created the first Stereoscope to view them.

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9 Responses to The future of 3D TV

  1. Andy Vasey says:

    Chris – great article!

  2. kevin shaw says:

    Good thinking Chris!
    I am still wondering if the television manufacturers can pull off this trick again. Actually for reasons you mention, I think stereo tv is a bigger benefit than hdtv for most consumers – if they can get past the viewing angles. And viewing angles are an inherent problem with LCD screens anyway, but it does not seem to have hurt sales

    Keep them coming

  3. Sheila says:

    I’m intrigued by your statement ‘television has lost its way’. I agree but for other reasons. While as a neo-Luddite I’m sceptical of 3D’s ‘added value’, I feel that TV (if there is an entity about which such statements can justifiably be made) veered off the desired track a long time before the latest 3D venture. At least 5years ago (maybe 10 – time flies) it stopped showing anything that was to me ((aren’t we all egocentric?) vaguely informative or even interesting. If you rule out the ’10 green celebrities’ genre and the promises of brilliant insights into archaeology or climate change or ecology that deliver half an idea in a decorative hour, and are not interested in watching people cook or have their houses or gardens destroyed, you are left with the news and weather. And I doubt either will benefit much from 3D.
    So – by a sideways argument – if I am not part of the mainstream/mass sector which market forces determine TV should aim to satisfy, how can I comment? And Chris, I don’t think you are the part of this sector either……. So a fascinating point of view, but what can we do about it?

    • Chris says:

      Thanks Sheila, good point. Nope, I’m certainly not the mainstream target audience, but I think my kids (19,16, 12) should be. Sadly for the future of TV they appear to suffer from your problem of not finding much to interest them and don’t watch much either.
      Stats suggest that the top shows in 2009 attracted almost the same audiences as they did ten years ago, but the rest have lost between 20% and 30% of their audiences. So yes, you are right, TV is in far bigger trouble than just figuring out whether 3D TV will be the next big thing.

    • Andy Ballingall says:


      “…it [TV] stopped showing anything that was vaguely informative or even interesting. If you rule out the ‘10 green celebrities’ genre and the promises of brilliant insights into archaeology or climate change or ecology that deliver half an idea in a decorative hour, and are not interested in watching people cook or have their houses or gardens destroyed, you are left with the news and weather. And I doubt either will benefit much from 3D.”

      I agree with you, except for the bit about the news, which seems aimed at 3 year olds with a learning difficulty.

      My partner and I recently watched a pair of CDs. “Civilisation” (Kenneth Clark 1969) and “The Ascent of Man” (1973, Jacob Bronowski). I don’t think either could be made today. Both would be deemed ‘elitist’, ‘inaccessible’, or just plain ‘boring’. David Attenborough’s excellent wildlife programmes have only survived because they feature animals eating each other. University Challenge is probably surviving solely on the hope that Jeremy Paxman will lose his rag one day. And in the space previously occupied by science programming, we are expected to put up with celebrity scientists whose role largely consists of standing in front of expensively filmed locations across the world, edging, through the course of an entire hour, unbearably slowly towards a single statement of fact that would take about 5 seconds to look up on the internet.

      (In summary, me, me me!)

      • Chris says:

        Oh, Andy.
        I think you underestimate the 3 dimensional allure of The Stewardesses. Even if the idea of “cabin fever” (surely some mistake?) does not interest you, what about those other great 3D titles?
        What about Bwana Devil (1953), or Cat Women of the Moon, or Hot Skin “feel it in SeXurround”.
        You risk neglecting the huge cultural contribution that our industry has made to civilisation.
        Snigger, snigger…

  4. Chris says:

    Oh dear, it all appears to be coming true. See recent articles:

    New York Times: 3-D Starts to Fizzle, and Hollywood Frets

    Chicago Sun-Timeas: Why 3D doesn’t work and never will. Case closed.

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