To 3D or not to 3D – that is the question

Viewing in that extra dimension is being pushed as never before. Could it really be here to stay, asks Rhodri Marsden

It’s a pattern that humanity seems doomed to repeat, if you’ll forgive the hyperbole; 3D entertainment is dangled in front of us, we’re briefly enthralled by it, we “ooh” and occasionally “aah”, but then we get bored and go back to reliable old2D. We squealed with delight at the anaglyphic projections with the dawning of 3D films in the mid-1950s, obediently donned the cardboard specs provided free with TVTimes in the 1980s and trotted along to Imax cinemas at the turn of the century, but never showed enough enthusiasm for the format to become anything more than a passing fad.

So why should the current wave of the perennial 3D hype be any different? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is money. There’s a lot riding on this incarnation of 3D, with a large number of technology and media companies very keen to sell us both the equipment and the entertainment. The statistics from television manufacturers, presented with a proud flourish, show that our purchase of 3D televisions is rising dramatically.

We’re supposed to infer from these claims that there’s a new enthusiasm for 3D as a format, but that doesn’t necessarily follow. Modern televisions are more likely to have 3D by default, but whether we actually use that capability is another matter.

Judging our emotional response to 3D depends on which survey you look at, but the relatively poor takings for the recent 3D version of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, coupled with the small percentage of subscribers to Sky’s 3D channels, might indicate that we’re still not that keen to don the specs – no matter how stylistically similar to Ray Bans they might be. But this doesn’t seem to be sabotaging the plans of 3D entertainment producers.

Sky has screened more than 100 sporting events in 3D since the pioneering Arsenal v Manchester United broadcast in January last year, and the BBC is about to take the plunge with its coverage of the Wimbledon finals on 2- 3 July. “I’m sure that 3D will only add to the drama,” said a spokesman for the corporation. The public will ultimately be the judge of that, but there does seem to be the feeling within the industry that if we’re given the 3D gear and lavished with the 3D content, we’ll eventually start to embrace it.

Samsung, for one, is vigorously expanding the number of films, documentaries and music videos available on its televisions via the “Explore 3D” app, and you get the general feeling that pressure will be applied to consumers until they finally buckle. Away from the television set, there’s been similarly frenetic 3D activity.

At the end of May, the first 3D videos were uploaded to YouTube – although the list of requirements for viewing them is enough to put off the casual browser: a recent copy of Firefox, a particular Nvidia graphics card, a 3D monitor, a3Demitter and the associated pair of specs. Meanwhile, 3D camcorders are making tentative gains in the marketplace, with Fujifilm’s W3 being the notable low-budget pioneer. Indeed, the 3D products causing the biggest buzz seem to be the ones (like the W3) that don’t require 3D spectacles, which have felt like an irritant ever since the days of green and red cellophane. HTC’s Evo 3D phone, the successor to last year’s highly regarded Evo, is set to offer a spectacle-less 3D experience via its 4.3in screen – and the technology blogs seem enthused. LG’s Optimus 3D is another new entry to the market, while Nintendo’s 3DS portable games console continues to pick up favourable reviews from even hardened cynics.

The3DS’s LCD screen is overlaid with a thin film with slits corresponding to the viewpoint of the left and right eyes. If you’re not directly in front of the screen or you have shaky hands the effect is lost, but otherwise games such as Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D feel truly ground-breaking.

A couple of other recent developments recognise that the future of 3D doesn’t necessarily require us to wear anything on our faces. A research team at the Grenoble Informatics Laboratory has produced an iPhone and iPad app called i3D using head-coupled perspective technology. The front-mounted camera on the device senses the position of your head and adjusts the image on the screen accordingly. It’s a nascent technology, but one that you sense has a future – particularly as Google is also developing a similar system.

Pioneer, meanwhile, have come up with something it calls Floating Vision, where pictures are projected through a3Dlens to create an almost holographic image. Its capabilities were demonstrated recently with a 3D map floating above the car dashboard that you could manipulate by waving your hands, much like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, but very impressive nevertheless.

Technology analysts talk of something called the “hype cycle”, where feverish excitement building around a product is followed by an immediate slump once it has been launched, which in turn is followed by a more sustained increase or decrease in interest based on how well it actually works.

Our repeated fascination and rejection of 3D doesn’t seem to conform to that template – but maybe, if the dreaded 3D specs are finally removed from the equation, we might start to accept it as more than just a gimmick. A spectacle- toting family sitting around a screen, each in their own little world, isn’t so cool – but a holographic projection of Johnny Depp in the living room? That’s another thing entirely.

Just give it six or seven years.