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A 3D Home Theater?

Why is 3D so difficult to achieve on our screens?

A 3D Home Theater?

Dec 21, 2009 9:42 AM,
By Jason Bovberg

When I was a teen, back in the 1980s, I had the good fortune of enjoying the 3D renaissance that hit movie theaters during the first half of that decade. I have indelible memories of getting dropped off at our local theater (no one seemed to want to join me for these weird, seemingly gimmicky experiences) to see such schlock as Comin’ at Ya!, Friday the 13th Part III (“in super 3D!”), Jaws 3D, Parasite, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Treasure of the Four Crowns—and even revivals of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and Andy Warhol’s sleazy Dracula and Frankenstein films.

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I would dutifully pay for my ticket and grab my paper 3D glasses—the red-and-blue anaglyph variety. (Yes, back then, the flimsy glasses came free with the price of the ticket, and you could reuse them.) I would find my seat and wait for the proper moment to don my red-and-blues, and, being a kid, I would occasionally try to reach out and grab whatever prop the movie decided to dangle in front of me, whether it was a ball or a bloody heart or a machete. (Yeah, I was a fan of cheesy horror.) I have a strong memory of being suitably impressed by the 3D imagery those old glasses were able to produce—despite the fact that it was achieved on film, with its inherent image instability.

Compare that with our modern 3D renaissance, which—interestingly, at this moment—begins and ends with James Cameron. With the advent of digital cinema and consumer-age IMAX productions, Cameron decided early this century to create the first full-length 3D IMAX feature, Ghosts of the Abyss, which took full advantage of the latest, top-end digital HD video cameras. He had found that the image stability of digital filmmaking offered an ideal platform for 3D, producing a reliably rock-solid dual image that our minds could smoothly process. And that opened the door to this decade’s 3D revival—including Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, Robert Zemeckis’s The Polar Express 3D and Beowulf, and the plethora of 3D animation bombarding theaters these days, including the under-appreciated Monster House, Tim Burton’s 3D-tinkered Nightmare Before Christmas, and Pixar’s fabulous Up. This year, we also saw some truly wonderful 3D work in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. And just recently, of course, is James Cameron’s eyeball orgy Avatar, the most purely immersive 3D experience I’ve ever seen in movie theaters.

This time around, the 3D process uses a new kind of eyewear: sturdier, polarized glasses, which produce the 3D effect more effectively for today’s digital color films. (If I have any complaint about 3D in theaters, it’s that these polarized glasses are by nature dark—almost like wearing sunglasses to the movies. The result is that the film looks a shade too dark, as if it’s being projected with a dim lamp.)

But with 3D exploding in cinemas more than it ever has, and producing —in the case of the visually ambitious Avatar—a 3D effect that is completely involving and far more than the gimmick it once was, the natural home-enthusiast question is how and when we’re going to achieve 3D in the home theater. How are we going to get that fabulous Avatar effect at home? We have high-def, image-stable digital movies right here on disc, ready to spin at a moment’s notice, so why is 3D so difficult to achieve on our screens?

There have been movies released on DVD and Blu-ray that have come with 3D glasses (the older-style anaglyph type), including Coraline, The Polar Express, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Robert Rodriguez’s The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl and Spy Kids. Recently, even the Three Stooges saw a 3D release. But each one of these has been a terrible home-video disappointment: It provides a rough, headache-inducing approximation of 3D more likely to induce migraine than to transport you into a multidimensional filmscape.

Unfortunately, current DVD and Blu-ray players are simply ill-equipped to deliver strong 3D to the home. To do that—to get beyond the limitations of the anaglyph format—the Blu-ray Disc Association is already looking into the prospect of integrating polarized 3D technology with the Blu-ray standard. Over the past few years, consumers haven’t exactly embraced Blu-ray, simply because they generally don’t enough of an improvement in image quality to justify the expense of an upgrade . (That being said, I have seen wider migration to the format recently, as prices of players and discs have fallen dramatically.) But the integration of 3D capability into Blu-ray players would almost certainly boost consumer interest in high-def home video—particularly in the age of Avatar.

Now for the bad news: To achieve 3D at home, you’re going to need a new Blu-ray player. The players that the Blu-ray Association are considering would actually deliver two images, each in full resolution, to create the 3D effect, and polarizing glasses would trick your mind into marrying the images, just like at the movie theater. There’s a suggestion that adapters might be used to upgrade current players to 3D capability, but there’s nothing in stone about that yet.

One thing’s for sure—James Cameron had a big hand in jump starting today’s 3D revolution, and with the inevitable home-video release of Avatar on our horizon, he’s going to have a big hand in the next phase of its evolution. His movie could single-handedly pave the way toward a rich, immersive 3D experience in the home theater.

And then we just need to find a way to get rid of the glasses.

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