3D entertainment has been with us at least since 1838 when Sir Charles Wheatstone invented the Stereoscope – basically a viewer that looked a lot like a pair of glasses that you would stand on a desk and slide a Stereoscope image under to view in 3D. You can also see 3D on these images by allowing your eyes to become unfocused, similar to viewing a “Magic Eye” picture (autostereogram), but the viewer made it much easier with less stress on the eyes. This is basically the same technique that many of us came to know when we were children as “View Master”.
The next breakthrough in 3D, allowing motion pictures to be shown in 3D was the “anaglyph” 3D process, what is commonly known as the “red/blue” 3D process. I’m sure that we’ve all found ourselves at one time or another wearing the familiar pair of paper glasses with a red cel over one eye and a blue cel over the other. The first movie to be shown with this process was “The Power of Love” in 1922.
A competing 3D technology, called “polarization” was introduced in 1936, where shaded glasses, similar to sunglasses were worn to give the 3D effect.
Because these technologies were both expensive to shoot and expensive to display, 3D movies really didn’t hit their stride until the 1950’s when it was possible to print both images on one strip of film. The first major theatrical release in 3D was the utterly forgettable Bwana Devil, released in 1952, leading to the 3D boom of the fifties. Between 1951 and 1959 no less than fifty movies were released in 3D. Although most of these are unremarkable horror movies and westerns, there were a few stand-outs including House of Wax, Creature From the Black Lagoon and the Hitchcock masterpiece Dial M for Murder.
What really killed the theatrical 3D film was the availability of cheap color film stock. With most movies from 1960 on being made in color, the fact that the anaglyph process distorted the colors on the screen, people were less willing to shell out for 3D movies.
3D made a comeback in the 1980’s, though, through use of the polarized 3D process, with such epically bad movies as Jaws 3D, Friday the Thirteenth Part 3D, Amityville Horror 3D, Metalstorm: the Destruction of Jared-Syn, and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. It was still however, considered kind of a niche market, and quickly went away.
The one place where 3D really prospered in the 1980’s was Imax. By using a variation of the “eclipse” method, where each eye was alternately blocked to create the 3D effect, patented in 1922, Imax released a series of features in 3D. The large, bulky glasses were worn like a baseball cap and used a small LCD screen in each lens to alternately “eclipse” vision in first one eye and then the other. The drawbacks to this system included reports of headaches and even epileptic seizures in their users.
3D remained primarily the purview of Imax until around 2005, when commercial features began to be released using the polarized 3D process, which is still the primary way that feature films are shown.
Gradually, more and more films were released in 3D until 2009, when the theatrical 3D release of Avatar broke all box office records and more than tripled ticket sales of the 2D version. Since then, 3D has been more the rule than the exception.
At the same time, 3D TVs, using a variation on the eclipse method started selling for astronomical prices, although both the polarized process and the eclipse process leave some viewers with splitting headaches.
Test Driving 3D TVs
In researching this article, I was able to “test-drive” two 3D TVs: the Samsung UN46C710U (LCD) and the Panasonic TC-46PGT24 (plasma). Rather than giving a general review of the televisions, I will concentrate here on their 3D capabilities.
First the Samsung.
The 3D on the Samsung from a 3D Blu Ray player showing “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs” was outstanding. I would rate it as being better than the 3D available in theaters, but part of that may be because of 3D televisions use of the eclipse system, which I have always felt worked better than the polarized version. Although nothing seemed to “come out” of the screen, which is something that I’ve really enjoyed when watching 3D in the past, the depth of field was excellent.
I also had a chance to switch over to a non 3D Blu Ray of Iron Man 2 on a component input. One of the features of 3D TVs is the ability to show a 2D program in simulated 3D.
Let me lapse into geek here for a second and talk about how artificial 3D perception works. It’s necessary for my comments on this 2D to 3D process.
In order to create a 3D effect, an image relies on what are called “planes”. The more viewing planes you have, the more depth of field you get on 3D. Think of them as being like slices of the image. You lay them on top of one another in order to get the effect. In a movie made in 3D, for instance, you might have eighteen or twenty planes on a person’s face, ranging from the tip of their nose being the closest to you and the backs of their ears or the hair behind their neck being the furthest back.
When you transfer 2D to 3D, you get what I think of as “View Master” 3D. Meaning that, although Tony Stark looked nearer to me than Rhody Rhodes did in the senate scene, both faces appeared flat. Tony Stark’s nose seemed no closer to me than the rest of him.
Now for the Panasonic. I have heard great things about plasma 3D, owing to the fact that plasma, unlike LCD, isn’t reliant on a refresh rate. As my former guru in electronic sales put it, “How fast is the “refresh rate” on a plasma? How fast can you turn a light on and off?”
The 3D programming that I was able to watch on the Panasonic was a 3D Blu Ray of various materials provided by the company for retail display, and I must say that I was underwhelmed. I watched a preview for the CG animated film “Astro Boy” and a slideshow of images. All of this looked like very limited plane “View Master” 3D to me. One of the shots in the slideshow, for instance, was of a satellite over an icy landscape. This should be breathtaking in 3D. It wasn’t. It looked like a mostly flat satellite hovering over a mostly flat landscape.
So I guess that the upshot is that 3D of a movie from a Blu Ray 3D player is excellent, especially if it was a movie MADE in 3D rather than a movie made flat and then transferred to 3D.
Limitations of 3D TV
Each 3D TV comes with one or two pairs of 3D glasses, keyed to that specific television. If you have more people than that to watch the TV, each additional pair will set you back about $150.
The televisions themselves will set you back a couple of thousand dollars, and each 3D Blu Ray is thirty or forty bucks.
There is also the question of why a special television is required to watch 3D. Honestly, aside from the TV manufacturers wanting to sell you yet another television, I don’t know. I know that my PS3 received an automatic upgrade making it 3D capable, I don’t know why my 240 hz Vizio TV didn’t, and I haven’t been able to find any information on this.
My recommendation? Wait until the prices come down significantly and there is more true 3D content available. Sort of like when high def TVs first became available, but there was a limited amount of HD being broadcast. Yeah, it’s cool, but only if you have content to watch on it.