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3D Technology - Here to stay?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010
The technology that seems to be on everyone's lips these days is 3D. Retailers are pushing it, moviemakers are designing movies especially for it and, at the moment anyway, the public seems to be lapping it up. But is 3D here to stay, or is it just experiencing a resurgence in popularity, similar to previous 3D movie crazes in the 50's and 80's, and may eventually sink back into obscurity? Could that 3D TV you just purchased become an expensive white elephant in a few years? What does the technology mean for other industries, including video conferencing?

As an art form, 3D seems to have an equal share of supporters and detractors. One of the most famous early embracers of 3D movie making of course is James Cameron, with his blockbuster film 'Avatar'. He argues that 3D cinema is providing a resurgence in movie going, the viewing audience actually visiting the cinema for the experience of seeing a 3D film that is, for the moment anyway, largely unavailable at home.



He also speaks of other applications, beyond movie making, saying  that “Once you can use this installed base of 3D theaters to allow people to participate in world events that are happening thousands of miles away in 3D just like you were actually there, think of the immediacy. Think of the power of that"

Possibly the most high profile detractor of 3D cinema so far is film critic Roger Ebert, who see's it as nothing more than a gimmick, adding little and possibly even detracting from the immersive experience of movie going. In his article 'D minus for 3D' he ask's the question “Have you ever watched a 2-D movie and wished it were in 3-D? Remember that boulder rolling behind Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Better in 3-D? No, it would have been worse. Would have been a tragedy. The 3-D process is like a zombie, a vampire, or a 17-year cicada: seemingly dead, but crawling out alive after a lapse of years. We need a wooden stake"

It's important to note at this point that there are two main methods for creating a 3D production. The first is by shooting the film with 3D cameras, designing the shots and constructing the film specifically with 3D in mind, as James Cameron did with 'Avatar'. The second is to take a film that has been shot in 2D and digitally 'Dimensionalise' it. The first way is superior, but far more expensive, but the second way, although cheaper, can lead to substandard 3D, as with the largely panned 'Clash of the Titans'. It is presumed that this movie was never designed to be in 3D, and a rush job was done on the back of the success of 'Avatar', so it's maybe a little unfair to judge. A better test of how good 'dimensionalising' a movie can be will be with the 3D re-release of the upcoming 'Star Wars' trilogy.

Many will say that the current 3D fad is little more than that: a fad. In the words of film historian Daniel Symmes 3D is 'The Circus coming to town. Does the circus stay around? No. If it does, attendance drops off, the novelty is gone and the circus goes away." However, there is one very large difference between the 3D of today and cardboard Green and Red lenses of yesteryear, and that is the digital revolution, which makes for faster, cheaper and more precise 3D and more importantly brings it into the home, converting movies and TV shows that weren't even shot in 3D. It's still too early to say, but early indicators are that the technology may be here for the long haul, especially with some industry people suggesting that 3D screens that eliminate the need for glasses may be as little as three years away.



What does this mean for other applications such as video conferencing? Well, replace the current generation of video conferencing cameras with a 3D camera and combine it with a large enough 3D screen, and the concept of the global boardroom becomes even more immersive and seamless. There is also a technology in development called HeadSPIN, that scans and projects a subjects face onto a 3D model in real time.

Combined with a special projection screen made from a concave spinning mirror, this allows the appearance of the face to change depending on the viewing angle of the audience. This, and similar technologies allow the participants in the conference to attain true eye contact during speech, something impossible with 2D video conferencing. The implications of this shouldn't be underestimated. For example, using traditional video conferencing media one speaker talking to a boardroom of people may be talking to one particular person in the room,  but to the members of the room he would appear to be looking directly at each and every one of them. This is because he is actually just looking into a camera and his image is being projected onto a 2D screen.  With HeadSPIN and other new methods of communication in development, this limitation is being removed, making for very natural interactions. The ultimate goal is to make the interface as transparent as possible, so much so that people communicating between boardrooms in New Zealand and London may even forget that there is an interface there at all.



Widespread adoption of this kind of video conferencing may be a few years away yet, but early prototypes of this kind of setup are already in advanced development by companies such as http://www.musion.co.uk , who's 3D projection technology has been used by Bill Gates and Prince Charles to 'Virtually' attend conferences and presentations.

In this sense it seems that even if 3D doesn't survive in the cinema (Until its next incarnation anyway) the new digital technologies that are being used to produce it may have it finding a new and long term home in video conferencing.