Avatar’s success doesn’t mean big screen 3D is here to stay

James Cameron’s hotly anticipated 3D movie, “Avatar,” enjoyed a healthy opening weekend in North America, pulling in over $70 million.

Besides stunning computer generated imagery and a predictable-but-appealing storyline, the movie will become well known for high-quality 3D.

Although an early review of “Avatar” famously said the 3D effects were “literally vomit inducing,” most will be impressed. It’s likely that actual nausea will be experienced by only a small minority of viewers. “Avatar” is prompting armchair prognosticators to predict that the film bring use of 3D in the movies into the mainstream.

In fact, multiple industries — TVs, software, PCs, videogames and even cell phone handsets — are ramping up a new generation of 3D products that will be released in 2010.

Despite the hype — and billions in risky investment — most of these efforts will fall flat. I predict that people will largely reject 3D consumer electronics products next year.

Why 3D movies never caught on

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I saw the 1953 horror film “House of Wax” in 3D at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. It was an old movie even then, but the film set the standard for pandering to 3D technology with scenes showing random objects flying at the audience.

Judging from the trailer, you can see that 3D was hyped 56 years ago.

One of the problems with 3D technology is that it tempts directors to change the action, and sometimes even the story, to get a rise out of the audience with cheap 3D tricks. They did it in “A Christmas Carol” with Jim Carrey. They’ll probably do it in the upcoming “Alice In Wonderland.”

The trouble with 3D in movies is that Hollywood is confusing novelty with sustainable appeal. Audiences will quickly tire of 3D pandering — and of wearing goofy cardboard glasses.

And that’s one of the problems with 3D as it’s currently set to be offered in consumer electronics. Executives smell money. But they just don’t get 3D.

“We went from standard definition to high definition, and [3D] is the natural next step.” HDlogix president Jim Spinella said recently, perfectly encapsulating the conventional wisdom among 3D advocates.

That statement sounds reasonable. But it all hinges on what “3D” means. If “3D” means goofy glasses, then, no, going from not wearing goofy glasses to wearing them is not a “natural next step.” And HDlogix’s own technology helped demonstrate that.

A Dallas Cowboys football game last Sunday featured the “first live 3D broadcast ever to be shown on giant video screens at a major sporting event.” The idea was to showcase HDlogix 3D technology. At halftime, the giant screen switched to 3D mode, and the fans were invited to put on the 3D glasses that were handed out at the entrance.

The intent was to show the second half of the game in 3D. But many fans refused to wear the glasses, and saw a blurry picture. Some of those who did wear them felt nauseous. The crowd booed. After a few uncomfortable minutes, the video was switched back to normal, 2D mode. The crowed cheered.

This is the horrible reality of current-generation 3D. People cheer when you turn it off. That’s too bad, because several industries are throwing a lot of money at it:

* All the major TV makers are working on 3D-ready TVs that will ship in 2010. A Sony executive said recently that he expects up to half the TVs Sony sells in 2012 will be 3D-capable.

* A subscription TV service in the U.K. called British Sky Broadcasting plans to launch next year Europe’s first-ever 3D TV channel.

* The Blu-ray Disc Association finalized the codec last week for creating full 1080p 3D Blu-ray content. The new format will require a 3D-capable LCD or plasma TV.

* The June 2010 World Cup tournament in South Africa will be taped in 3D. Some of the Winter Olympics will be captured in 3D as well.

* Disney’s “Toy Story 3” will be re-released to IMAX theaters in a 3D version in June.

* Sony plans to make all 2010 PlayStation games playable in 3D.

* A $199 product from Nvidia called the GeForce 3-D Vision Kit creates a 3D effect on existing PC displays, and works with about 400 PC games.

Phones, other consumer electronics are also getting experimental 3D displays and software. Most of these efforts will fail to meet the expectations of 3D boosters.
Where 3D will succeed

3D technology will win over consumers in a sustainable way only when three conditions are met. First, it’s got to be really high quality, without blur or other annoying artifacts. Second, 3D has got to be used for the right applications (more on that in a minute). Third: no goofy glasses!

There’s hope. Apple filed a patent for no-glasses 3D, which tracks the position of the user to auto-adjust the display to maintain the 3D effect. They’re not alone. A great many researchers, designers and inventors are coming up with ways to create the 3D illusion without glasses.

And because 3D is being thrown at just about everything, some applications will succeed wildly. One of these is gaming. 3D will rock the gaming world when it becomes a tactical advantage in game play.

When 3D lets players look behind other players and onscreen objects by leaning; when it helps players discover monsters hiding in the bushes, gamers will embrace it. If 3D becomes enough of an advantage in game play, gamers would even be willing to wear the glasses.

But for mainstream content — TV, movies and similar fare, 3D isn’t ready. I predict that most 3D TVs will go unsold or unused. (Many still aren’t even watching HD programming on their HDTVs.)

HDlogix executives set out to change the world, and must have been shocked and horrified to hear the public booing their big showcase of 3D technology. Unfortunately that scene will repeat itself all year as one 3D product after another is rejected by the gadget-buying public.

Yes, of course 3D technology will go mainstream. But not yet. You don’t need special glasses to see the epic fail that awaits this not-ready-for-prime-time technology in 2010.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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