3D-television: A whole new way of seeing?

This week, Sky launches its 3D-television service. The cinemas are full of three-dimensional movies and a heap of hardware has hit the shops. But is this what consumers want?

If we set aside all cynicism and believed the breathlessly excited advertising campaigns, we'd join the rest of the nation in being effortlessly seduced by a new wave of 3D entertainment. This Friday, Sky launch a dedicated channel dedicated to 3D programmes, currently trailed online with a typically enthusiastic video presentation from Stephen Fry; come the weekend any owner of one of the new breed of 3D-compatible televisions will be able to get a unique perspective on the world of international golf, with three days of 3D Ryder Cup coverage. In the cinemas, a steady stream of 3D titles continues to arrive, including Toy Story 3, Shrek Forever After and King Kong 360. 3D camcorders from the likes of Panasonic are appearing in stores, while Fujifilm has launched an "affordable" (ie, sub-£400) model, the W3, which can also capture still images that are printable on 3D "lenticular" paper. In the gaming world, 3D titles such as Gran Turismo 5 and Killzone 3 are eagerly awaited over the Christmas period.

Both the media and technology sectors are labouring hard to persuade us that 3D entertainment – two images, one for each eye – is a great idea this time around. But its history has been characterised by short-term public excitement followed by longer-term ambivalence. In the "golden era" of 3D films from 1952 to 1955, cinemas were packed with people gasping at the primitive but groundbreaking anaglyphic projections, but the red and green-lensed spectacles they sported now sit alongside deelyboppers and Rubik's Cubes as iconic objects of yesteryear. As technology improved over the decades, we were lured back to the big screen on a number of occasions on the promise of 3D treats – most notably in IMAX cinemas – but we've never really yearned for day-to-day entertainment to have a third dimension.

In February 1982, 3D spectacles came bundled with the TV Times as a science show called The Real World became the first 3D British television broadcast; since then, occasional late-night 3D shows have appeared on TV but we rarely felt the urge to dust off the cardboard specs. It's only in the last nine months, following the huge success of the film Avatar, that 3D technology has edged into our everyday lives – firstly with 3D coverage of football matches in pubs, and now finally moving into the living room. It's no longer a struggling format. It works; the effects are realistic, occasionally stunning – but are we that interested?

At the cinema, there's been evidence that interest in 3D post-Avatar has been on the slide; the percentage of American cinema-goers queuing up on opening weekends to see 3D versions of films has been steadily declining – from 71 per cent for Avatar, down to 45 per cent for Universal's recent cartoon, Despicable Me – causing US film critic Roger Ebert to describe Hollywood's enthusiasm for 3D as a "crazy stampede" that's potentially "suicidal". In addition, survey data from the US shows an unexpected ambivalence towards 3D televisions; while 25 per cent of people who'd never seen one stated that they'd be likely to buy one in the next 12 months, that figure fell to 12 per cent for people who'd seen one in action. When half of us become cool over a piece of technology as a direct result of seeing it demonstrated, that's surely a warning sign. Why have we repeatedly failed to fall in love with 3D?

The first wave, post-war, was blighted by technical problems, not least the issue of keeping two projectors perfectly in synchronisation; the slightest discrepancy between the two projector speeds could ruin the 3D effect and make the film unwatchable. Unsurprisingly, that's no longer a problem, and there are currently two methods of displaying 3D vying for our attention. There's passive, where you wear a pair of cheap, polarised glasses that work in a similar way to the old red and green ones – ie, two images are on the screen at all times, but thanks to that polarisation each eye can only see one. Then there's active, where the TV switches dozens of times per second between the picture meant for the left and right eye, while a more expensive pair of glasses rapidly blocks the left and right lenses in perfect sync. Both systems are effective, and Sky are stressing for the launch of their channel that there's no format war afoot – it's not VHS versus Betamax. But the literal headaches once caused by the problem of non-syncing projectors haven't entirely disappeared.

A page of warnings on the Samsung website about possible side effects of watching 3D television make for alarming reading ("do not use if you're in bad physical condition, need sleep or have been drinking alcohol") – but while this is clearly precautionary in the same way that blurb on the back of a medicine bottle is, the brain does have to put in a lot more work to process two images. Indeed, the Eyecare Trust recently stated that 6 million British people have poor binocular vision, which could lead directly to tired eyes and headaches if they attempt to watch moving 3D images.

Then there's the thorny issue of the glasses themselves. The social activity of sitting around with family or friends to watch television can be disrupted by 3D glasses – not least because you have to find a pair for anyone who happens to wander into the room. It turns casual viewing into a drag, as you have to take the glasses on and off. And while the short-sighted among us already balance spectacles on our noses to watch TV, a second pair could be seen as overkill. Lenticular screens – which allow you to see 3D images without wearing glasses – are emerging; there's a small one built into the back of Fujifilm's W3 to allow you to watch back the footage that you've shot straight away. But larger-scale lenticular screens are incredibly expensive, with a 42in version going on sale in China for a cool $20,000. With or without glasses, there's the brow-furrowing fact that to fully appreciate 3D involves moving your head from side to side slightly, to see objects in the foreground moving independently of those in the background. It may be trumpeted as a step forward, but it doesn't always feel like it. There's been an unusual situation in the past few months where TVs have been sold to us without there being much we can watch on them –something Sky are obviously addressing with Friday's launch.

Yes, there are handful of 3D Blu-ray DVD titles available, but efforts to expand catalogues by attempting to convert existing 2D films into 3D versions hasn't worked out well; Clash Of The Titans, released in March, came in for particular criticism after the effects were found to be substantially poorer than native 3D. Camcorders provide another option: if Hollywood isn't making 3D films, why not record your child unwrapping his or her birthday presents in hitherto-unimaginable depth and detail? But the 3D camcorder is still a nascent technology; while Fujifilm's W3 is undoubtedly impressive on first look, the 3D effect only works well with still or slow-moving objects situated between 2m and 50m away. If objects get too close, the two lenses on the front of the camera are unable to compensate and go slightly cross-eyed in the way humans can, so the image fails to makes sense and the 3D spell is broken. You have the consolation of being able to use it as a great 2D camera with two independent lenses (one zooming in, one zooming out, for example) but some will find the much-hyped 3D experience disappointing.

Ultimately, our ambivalence towards 3D may be more of a philosophical question: does the format actually impart any more meaning than its 2D equivalent? Aside from that initial wow-factor, what does 3D actually give us? Maybe that wow-factor is part of the problem; some commentators have said that the extraordinary nature of 3D footage somehow makes it less realistic than 2D. It's certainly questionable whether 3D home movies are any more moving, evocative or cherishable than the stack of 2D footage we have from previous decades. Gaming is different; that's one area where the ability to lose ourselves in an alternate 3D reality will surely drive the format forward. But it's going to take even more effort to persuade us all that a late-night slump in front of the telly should be taken into a third dimension.

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