3D – The New Betamax?

If you’ve read more than one or two posts on this blog, you’ll be aware that I’m rather partial to a bit of technology and a nice new shiny gadget. Whether it’s the latest videogaming platform or a new electronic abacus, I like to keep abreast of what’s going on and I hate to miss out. This week though, I’ve found myself taking a bit of a step back to think about what exactly is the ‘next big thing’ in a world of ever expanding technological boundaries.

Having seen two 3D films in two days (Green Lantern and Transformers: Dark of the Moon), and with the imminent release of the world’s first 3D mobile, the LG Optimus 3D I’m really starting to wonder if this is one technology too far. Yes, the world in which we live is not as flat as the screens we are constantly watching and in movies, the 3D effect can sometimes add an extra layer of immersion, but 3D has already proven to have its drawbacks.

1) You end up looking like a bit of an idiot. Yes, that’s right, apart from the Nintendo 3DS and the aforementioned new LG handset, 3D is generally viewed using a pair of 3D specs, the likes of which wouldn’t have looked out of place in late 80s Star Trek. Sitting in your living room wearing these is always going to make you feel a little silly, especially when you forget to take them off to answer the door to the Avon lady.

2) Autostereoscopic 3D (the 3DS etc) has to be viewed from a very specific direction to actually work, and has been reported to cause a few headaches after prolonged exposure. I’m not one to support a scaremongering ‘technology’s bad’ story such as this usually, but surely this one can’t be good for our kids.

3) The 3D effect of movies, sports and TV is largely pointless. Having watched football in 3D, the general result was a headache, albeit with a few good camera shots of the crowd which added real depth. But who watches football to look at the crowd? Similarly, whenever a film tries to put extra effort into very obviously ‘directed for 3D’ scenes, the result often feels forced. The Final Destination, I’m looking at you.

4) It’s pricey. Not only do additional pairs of 3D glasses for home use cost in the region of £100, buying films in 3D and the TVs and Blu-ray players to view them on can soon put a major dent in the bank balance of us normal folk.

3D televisions will obviously come down in price and be more affordable to the average family in the next couple of years, and the PS3 offers a cut-price 3D media player, but is 3D the game-changer that people are predicting or could it go the way of Betmax and HD-DVD before it? It’s gotten to a stage now where roughly 60% of new film releases are also watchable in 3D, however appetite of the cinema-going public isn’t necessarily matching this growth, with box office takings for the 3D version of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film accounting for only 38% of its total revenue in the US.

Don’t get me wrong, our viewing pleasure can be improved and HD was a revelation. The difference to anyone with even half decent eyesight was staggering, but 3D promises things will jump out at you to add even more to your optical experience and it isn’t always the case.

The clue to the success or failure of 3D could lie in its origins. Let’s not forget this is far from new technology, and indeed the first 3D film process was patented in the late 1890s. A 3D image of Queen Victoria was even on display at the Great Exhibition in 1851. So why haven’t things moved on that much in over 150 years?

One of the reasons could be the perception of 3D being a gimmick. I loved seeing comics and photos in red/green anaglyph 3D in the 80s but it didn’t mean I wanted to watch all of Jaws 3D bathed in a mysterious multicoloured glow. Similarly, I haven’t bought a 3D TV due to not wanting to give my cat something else to chew on.

The crux of the matter is this; 3D is only possible by in some way making our viewing less comfortable. Watching TV or a film is, and should always be effortless. You sit there passively watching a screen and things happen in front of you. Having to charge up your special specs beforehand just adds a level of complexity, and I’d argue it’s one that we don’t necessarily need. Here’s to the wireless.