In the final installment of our two-part interview on the history and future of 3D with John Carey, Professor of Communications and Media Management at Fordham University, the co-author (with Martin Elton) of When Media Are New discusses YouTube’s foray into 3D, the hurdles still facing the technology, and what will succeed it.
Flightpath: It seems to me that Avatar fueled the new 3D craze, including the push for 3D TVs. Was that the case, or were the TVs in the pipeline, and then Avatar just happened to be this huge success?
John Carey: I think the TVs were in the pipeline, and Avatar helped. Now, having said that, 3D TVs did not do well last year. As I understand it, they are not doing that well this year. Now, there are lots of reasons for that. You have the problem of multiple standards, which you had in the early days of HD also. In other words, there are three or four 3D standards, different types of glasses, and when people see that, they tend to say, “I might bet on the wrong horse here, and I’m gonna wind up with the wrong 3D, and no one’s going to produce [content] for this.” So that’s an issue. There’s also the cost of the glasses, which is a big issue. There’s active and passive 3D. The passive glasses can be as cheap as the ones you had in the old days for the movies, and essentially they don’t cost anything. And the active ones are like $150.
Once again, I’ll do a comparison with HD. How did HD get known by people? Often, it was some big television event like the Super Bowl, and you invited 15 people over, and they saw your HD television set and they said, “This is fabulous, I’ve got to get one.” If you did that with 3D, you’d have to have 15 sets of glasses. Well, that’s $1500. That’s a big problem.
Flightpath: If you have 15 people in a room, can you all be looking at it from different angles? Or do you have to be directly in front of the TV?
John Carey: That’s another issue. Once again, it varies with the standard. With some standards, you have a fairly wide viewing area, with other standards you have to be pretty much directly in front. So if you had 15 people in a room, yeah, that would be a problem.
Wearing the glasses for a long period of time is an issue. If you think about it, these active glasses, they’re somewhat heavy. Think about people who are doing something else while they’re watching television; they’re reading the newspaper, many of them will have their computer open. So you’re gonna have the problem of, essentially, looking at the screen and then looking down and having to take off your glasses. That’s a significant issue.
The other thing that’s a challenge to 3D TV is that 3D without glasses is coming along. You already have it with one of the new videogame systems.
Flightpath: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about the Nintendo 3DS. They were able to introduce glasses-free 3D to the mass market.
John Carey: It’s called auto-stereoscopic, and it works. There are two issues. You have to be looking directly at it, but since it’s typically one person using the videogame [system], that’s okay. It also is, at the moment, outrageously expensive for anything but a very small screen. So if you have a [portable] game [system], and it’s five inches by five inches, that’s okay. If you tried to make a TV set that was, say, 40 inches, it would cost several thousand dollars. Having said that, like all electronic technologies, the price will come down. The estimates I’ve seen are that auto-stereoscopic 3D will probably be feasible for regular television sets in five to seven years. In that sense, 3D with glasses has a [small] window of opportunity.
And then, coming behind that, will be holographic television. The Japanese have the 2020 Summer Olympics and they say they will be broadcasting that or cablecasting it in holographic television. Other people say that’s too ambitious. Now, holographic television exists. It’s used a little bit in medical imaging, but a set right now would cost about $40,000-$50,000, so that’s not feasible. And it’s roughly 10-15 years away.
So these are all the things that are coming down the line, and the current generation of 3D has to kind of find its place before these other things take over.
Flightpath: Do you think that without the use of glasses, 3D will be the success people wanted it to be in the ’50s, or will it always play second fiddle to 2D?
John Carey: I think it will ultimately be successful. But I think what is gonna happen is that it will not be like HD, where let’s say, 75% of programs [are available in HD], and it will eventually be 100%. 3D, I think, will never be 100%, and there are a few reasons for that. One is that, with 3D with glasses, if you watch it for a long period of time, like five or six hours, almost everybody gets a headache. So what that means is, unlike HD, where your goal would be that you’d get an HD set and then everything would be in HD, with 3D, the goal would be you’d get a 3D set, and then maybe one of two hours a night, you would watch shows that lend themselves the most to 3D and then the rest would be in 2D. It’s likely [that] sports will be big-time 3D, and then in terms of other genres, I’m not quite sure which will be successful. And it also may be that over time, production techniques will change to take advantage of 3D. That’s happened with HD. If you look at production over the last 10 years, HD lends itself more to bright colors and pastels. It lends itself to moving shots, like from a helicopter, so you see more of that in production. It doesn’t lend itself so well to dark scenes. So like, Law & Order really doesn’t look particularly good in HD. A different set of issues will come and play out in 3D, as we learn what works in 3D.
Flightpath: A key to early television adoption was having TVs in bars, and the same was true for HDTVs. Do you think that will be a key for 3D TV?
John Carey: It’s absolutely a key thing. The story about early television in the late ’40s and bars, that’s absolutely right. With HD, they actually did a fairly poor job early on. If you went into an electronics store in say, 2000, or 1999 when they were first introduced, they had HD sets but they weren’t hooked up to an HD service. They were hooked up to regular analog television, and people looked at it and they said, “What’s the big deal? This doesn’t look particularly good at all.” And they actually missed the boat. What they really should have done is subsidized them and put them in sports bars. And they did eventually do that, but it wasn’t until around 2004 or 2005, that when you went into an electronics store, it was hooked up to real HD and bars were getting it. And that’s, by the way, when HD started to take off.
Now, with 3D, you have the same issue. Right now, I think they’ve done a really poor job of marketing it. The World Cup, some of that was in 3D. There were some tennis tournaments in 3D. There were very, very few demonstrations of it. It’s been a little bit better in Europe. The U.S. hasn’t really had much at all.
The issue is, people have to see 3D if they’re going to eventually buy it. So you’ve got to have some content, and you’ve got to have a place where you can see it. Now, some electronics stores are exhibiting it, but not all of them, and certainly not enough. The obvious place to do it would once again be sports bars. In a sports bar, let’s say it’s a big football game, you could have one set that is [showing] the game in 3D, and then two or three other sets with the game in 2D. So everybody can see it, and those who buy or rent the glasses [from the bar], they can experience [3D].
There was an interesting thing I saw, a photograph of what Sony is doing in Japan. In Tokyo, on sidewalks, they have a big panel, and in the panel there are cutouts. The glasses are built into the cutout. So you can walk up, see a sample of 3D, and not walk away with the glasses. And it doesn’t have to be manned or anything like that.
One way or the other, they’ve got to deal with that issue of demoing it for the public. And they have not done a good job so far.
If I were betting, I would bet that 3D TV with glasses will be a failure. But what will happen is, as before, it will sort of fade. And then, when auto-stereoscopic 3D without the glasses comes in in five or six years, by that point there will be enough content that will have been produced, the problem of the glasses will have gone away, and I think at that point it will find a market.
Flightpath: What about 3D making its way over to computing? YouTube just launched its 3D channel. Do you see that as being anything more than a gimmick or a way to get in the 3D game, or will it play a role in the future of experiencing content on the computer?
John Carey: I think, in the computer world, the biggest early opportunity is videogames. There are some videogames in 3D, and if you think about the type of person who might wear glasses for three or four hours, and would put up with all kinds of things in order to have the most super experience, it would be the gamer. So that’s certainly where I would start.
The YouTube 3D [channel], at the moment, I’m not going to say [it’s a] gimmick. It’s a novelty. They have to get content. They’re trying to encourage people to shoot 3D and put it on the YouTube channel. It will be a novelty. What will be interesting is, will people, especially the amateurs, come up with something that’s totally new? In my mind, when I hear about something like that, I don’t say yes, I don’t say no. I say, “Let me take a look at it. Let’s see where it goes.”