The Dog Days of 3D
The entertainment industry went nuts for it. Exhibitors mounted an all-out effort to install it into their cinemas. Major consumer electronics manufacturers bet their futures on it.
Creating it involved special beam-splitter camera systems, and the cost of production was generally three times higher than the cost of a "regular" movie. And it stalled in the marketplace, until televisions that could play it became ubiquitous.
I'm surely talking about 3D, you ask?
No, I'm talking about Technicolor, and the subtractive color process introduced by the company in 1932.
So, exactly when did color movies become the standard? When color TV's became popular in the 1950's. The ability to watch color movies at home immediately boosted the percentage of movies shot in color to more than 50%.
The fourth annual 3D Entertainment Summit was held in Hollywood a few weeks ago, featuring luminaries from all parts of the entertainment business. The biggest "get," however, was the panel featuring the legendary filmmaking innovator James Cameron.
Mr. Cameron brought along one of my favorite graphics, courtesy of Gartner, a highly-regarding firm focused on technology business analysis. The graphic? The Garnter Hype Cycle.
Now, analysts are notorious for inventing charts that will induce you to purchase their services ($2K for the latest report, anyone?), but Gartner actually produced a winner with this one: the cycle has played out again and again, for technologies as disparate as voice-over IP (how many internet-based phones are in your office?), RFID (ask anyone who runs a warehouse how they keep track of things), and location-aware applications (when was the last time you found your way around town using Google Maps on your smartphone?).
3D entertainment is next on the list. Let's take a look at the hype cycle and the marketplace, shall we?
The "Technology Trigger" that re-awakened interest in 3D was actually two-fold: 1) the increasing sophistication of computer-generated animation, and 2) the rise of digital movie production.
The tools that Pixar developed to make their first full-length animated feature film also became the tools they used to produce animated 3D movies. The success of Toy Story bred follow-on developments in the implementation of CGI into live-action filmmaking, until creatures like Peter Jackson's Gollum emerged from the other end - fully-rendered CGI characters integrated right into live action movies.
Add the quantum leaps in chip processing power over the past decade, and you've arrived at a point where, from a computer's perspective, the hop between creating a character or effect, and creating it in 3D, is pretty minimal.
On the digital production front, that same chip processing power was rapidly improving the quality of the imagery produced by digital cameras, while enabling the development of very sophisticated, yet low-cost, editing tools such as Final Cut Pro. More and more movie makers began abandoning the vagaries of film for the WYSIWYG nature of digital, lowering costs and speeding timelines.
3D became the next natural step, as images were instantly converted to a series of 0's and 1's that could be easily tracked and manipulated by sophisticated image processing tools. Once the filmmaking geeks among us figured that out, 3D, particularly live-action 3D, was on its way to a renaissance, starting with the concert films of 2008 featuring music icons for all generations: Hannah Montana 3D and U2 3D.
PEAK OF INFLATED EXPECTATIONS
We all know what happened next: The "Peak of Inflated Expectations." Sony announced that the future of company was intimately wrapped up in 3D technologies, and kicked off a series of camera, consumer electronics and studio production initiatives to support their prediction. Competitor Panasonic, not to be outdone, announced a partnership with DirecTV, Sony and IMAX to bring 3D directly to homes. The Korean CE manufacturers also dove into the fray, with their own 3D televisions - soon followed by 3D smartphones and 3D gaming devices.
The market was in a heady state: Avatar debuted, to become the highest-grossing film in history. 3D cinema innovator RealD installed systems at a rapid clip, rapid enough to lead the company to go public in mid-2010. Every week brought news of a new major movie production being shot in 3D, as maestros like Martin Scorsese and Peter Jackson joined James Cameron in forging a path into an expansive new use of the medium.
TROUGH OF DISILLUSIONMENT
That was way back in 2009 and 2010. We are now solidly in the "Trough of Disillusionment." Box office for 3D movies is declining in the US, and showing signs of softening in similar mature markets overseas. A recent exception: Disney's 3D release of The Lion King, which was such a strong performer that the company plans to re-release a slate of classic animated films in 3D.
Prices on 3D TVs have been cut until the cost associated with the feature is almost non-existent. CE manufacturers have retrenched on their claims that TV's with active glasses provide the superior experience required for great 3D. And there are persistent rumors that ESPN is planning to abandon its two-year experiment in 3D broadcasting, while SKY UK's 3D TV service has fewer than 200,000 subscribers out of a universe of 10 million.
Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret and Chloe Moret as Isabelle in Paramount Pictures' Hugo.
SIGNS OF ENLIGHTENMENT
The "Signs of Enlightenment" stage can't happen fast enough for folks involved in the industry.
So, what is that first sign? It will happen when the consumer electronics industry abandons their commitment to 3D displays that require glasses.
Consumers have spoken loudly: they do not want to wear glasses to watch TV. They may be co-opted into doing so for the same circumstances that draw them into 3D movies: to partake in an experience that's an event, something that's out of the norm. A sitcom or even a regular Monday night football game is not going to draw them in.
Unfortunately, as we saw with the adoption of color, television is crucial to the future of 3D. Fortunately, as with color, there is no telling when and where the next innovator might emerge.
Prognosticators have put the development of larger-format autostereo (glasses-free) displays at 5 to 10 years out from the present day -- but what do they know? Great progress has been made with smaller smartphone and tablet-size displays, but resolution and position remain issues with larger displays.
OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology may hold the keys to the future, as Korean researchers have been successful in creating very small, very-high quality glasses-free displays using OLEDs layered with tiny prisms. Somewhere, there is very likely a young genius in a garage who has figured this all out in his/her head, and just needs funding to get started.
My take? Given the length of consumer electronics manufacturing cycles, we're at least four years out from 3D nirvana.
In the meantime, 3D will remain a specialty business, responsible for the frosting on top of the box-office cake, and possibly for more than a few memorable concerts and Super Bowl parties. It will look like 1947 all over again.