3D technology is seemingly everywhere. Blockbuster movies are now routinely released in 3D, 3D television sets are for sale at every Best Buy, and the Nintendo 3DS has introduced glasses-free 3D to video games and the mainstream market. Recently, YouTube launched its own 3D channel, bringing user-generated 3D into the cultural and creative mix. While 3D has come and gone over the years, it has proven to be a resilient technology, and has never been more omnipresent.
To get a better understanding of 3D, from its history to where it’s going, we recently spoke with John Carey, Professor of Communications and Media Management at Fordham University. Carey, co-author (with Martin Elton) of When Media Are New, has researched new media development and adoption for over 25 years, and has conducted studies on everything from consumer use of mobile video technologies to the impact of HDTV on viewing behavior for clients such as A&E Television Networks, Cablevision, NBC Universal and more.
In part 1 of our two-part interview, Carey explains the origins of 3D, its failure at being adopted on a mass scale, and the role that sports and other content may play in the future success of 3D TV.
Flightpath: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you talk a little bit about the first time 3D was introduced? I have an image of those kind of cheesy black and white photos from the ’50s, of a packed movie theater where everyone is wearing 3D glasses, as representing early 3D. I think a lot of people have that image. Is that really how 3D began?
John Carey: It actually begins a lot earlier than that. If you just take the general notion of three-dimensional images, it traces back to the 1840s. The very first attempts to do photography, they were trying to do 3D. And the reason is kind of obvious. If you think about photography, and then you say, well, “How do people see?” People have two eyes, and two eyes allows for depth. So they were trying to figure out a way that they could get depth in photographs. And it actually existed by the late 1850s. There were these stereoscopes that allowed you to see 3D. All through the late 19th century there was some 3D photography, and then it actually became quite popular by the late 1890s. So from say, the late 1890s to around 1920, stereo photographs were very common. They ultimately lost out in terms of real popularity to the simplicity of a photograph on a piece of paper that you could hand to someone, because the stereo photos all required that you use a special viewer.
Flightpath: It sounds like they were viewing the photos in a View-Master.
John Carey: The View-Master that you may be familiar with was sort of the remnant of the 3D photography experience. As far as I know, it still exists. It certainly existed when I was a kid.
Flightpath: Were people buying 3D cameras back then? Who was using them?
John Carey: In the 1890s, [3D] was high-end amateur photography, and certainly professional photography, and many people were shooting 3D images. It was quite popular for awhile. I don’t want to exaggerate. 2D photography was way more popular and used than 3D. But 3D had a significant niche in that world.
Flightpath: And when were 3D movies introduced?
John Carey: The first film I’m aware of is in the 1920s. There was an experimental 3D movie, and there were also some experiments in the ’30s and ’40s. Then 3D movies took off in the early 1950s, and the reason for that was that the movie theaters were getting clobbered by television. People who used to go to the movie theater two or three times a week were now going maybe once, and they were hoping to bring them back into the theater. So they tried actually a number of gimmicks, and one was 3D movies. There was Bwana Devil and Dial M For Murder, a Hitchcock film. There were probably about 20 of them in the ’50s.
They would try anything [to get people back into theaters]. They had things like Smell-O-Vision, where they’d introduce smells into the theater. They introduced panoramic, very wide screens. All of these were just an attempt to bring people back to the theater.
But, in every decade after that – the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s – some 3D movies came back. And once again, they had a little bit of popularity, and then they went away.
Flightpath: It’s funny because 3D being introduced by the movie studios to get people back in the theaters is exactly what they’re doing now. But what led to the marginalization of 3D? Did the market just say, “This is a gimmick, we don’t want it,” or were the glasses too much of a barrier?
John Carey: It wasn’t the glasses, it was the fact that [3D] was a one-trick pony. By and large, what they did was, they would find a way to throw something at the camera, or shoot something at the camera, and that was the appeal. After awhile it just sort of wore off. “So, the tomahawk from the Indian is coming at me. So what?” Some people also argued, and this is an issue today, that with live-action actors, the 3D can get in the way of the story. That you notice the technique and that makes it harder to get into the story.
I don’t think the glasses were the issue. The projectors were an issue, and how many theaters could project 3D. The glasses were not such an issue because it was still a rarity. In other words, you’d go to maybe two 3D movies a year. That wasn’t such a big deal. That is more of an issue with television, if you’re going to be sitting there watching it for three or four hours a night.
The big boost for 3D movies was Avatar, because it was a huge success. The question is, would Avatar have been significantly less successful had it been in 2D? My opinion would be no. I think it still would have been quite successful. But it certainly was one of the best 3D movies ever made, in part because they did very little “throw-something-at-the-audience,” and they used depth of field instead. If 3D is gonna make it, that’s what’s gonna make it – not some axe coming out towards you in the theater.
So Avatar was successful, but then if you look at the movies that followed, not so [much]. There were a few successes. I think Alice In Wonderland was successful. There’s another key thing here. Many of the successes, especially in the last 10 years, have been animation. 3D seems to lend itself very much to animation and somewhat less so to live-action actors.
Flightpath: Roger Ebert is famously anti-3D. I just saw Thor in 3D, and I was underwhelmed. Watching scenes in a coffee shop in 3D didn’t really add anything to the experience, and I thought the image seemed muddled.
John Carey: That points to a problem, which is, if there’s nothing that’s taking advantage of 3D in a scene, is that helping or hurting your experience? If it’s clearly and explicitly designed or shot to take advantage of 3D as Avatar was, which had beautiful depth of field, then yes. But that’s kind of a rarity. There are some directors who are dead set against 3D, and there are some who are in favor of it. But even the ones who are in favor of it say, “You have to shoot it right.” You have to take into account exactly what 3D is good for and then shoot to it. If all you do is have a 3D camera instead of a 2D camera, chances are, it’s not going to help the film.
Flightpath: When did 3D come to television?
John Carey: You had experiments with 3D [on television] going back at least to the ’70s. They tended to be of one kind. They tended to be commercials, [and] they were promoted – because you had the issue of where are you going to get the glasses – so there was often a tie-in between the commercials and let’s say, 7-Eleven. So you’d go to 7-Eleven and you’d get the glasses, and then there would be a program that would have some 3D in it. And the most recent one like that was the 2009 Super Bowl, that had some 3D commercials. You had some in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, but not a lot.
Several things were responsible for 3D coming into television today. The penetration of high-definition TVs is now very high, and they make very little money now on selling an HDTV. The early sets, around 2000-2002, they’d make $1,000 profit. And now they might make $20 or $30 profit off an HD set. So the manufacturers needed something to boost sales and to boost profits, and there was also a lot people looking at 3D movies being successful and saying, “Well, if that’s what’s going to drive people, let’s start to launch it.”
There are number of obstacles for 3D TV. When HDTV came in in the late ’90s, there was a lot of content available. Virtually every movie made since the ’20s was made in 35mm or 70mm, which is more than enough for high-definition television. So you had all that content, and then beginning in the early ’90s, most television programs were shot either in HD videotape or they were shot in film. So once again, you had all this content available to you.
So, one of the challenges for 3D TV is, where are you going to get the content? There are a number of places. What’s the total inventory of 3D movies? It’s probably about a hundred. So there are not that many, but there are some. You can up-convert from 2D movies to 3D, and I’ve seen it; it’s okay, but it’s not nearly as good as if you shoot originally in 3D. They’re gonna up-convert Titanic and the Star Wars movies, and it’ll be interesting to see what they look like.
The other thing people are banking on a lot is sports. If I was gonna place my bets, that’s where I’d place my bets. But there’s a lot to it. Some sports seem to lend themselves better to 3D than others, and some of this is surprising. Golf is quite good in 3D. Football is surprisingly more difficult to do in 3D, and one of the reasons for this is the angle of the cameras. With golf, inherently, the way they’ve been shooting it, someone is standing and looking at the player, so you get this sort of straightforward thing of the ball coming at you. With football, most of the cameras are high up, and they’re looking down. So if you shoot 3D that way, you’re not going to get very good depth, because it’s between the player and the field. What you have to do is put the cameras closer to the field and then you get the full depth of the players themselves. So what they have to do, as I understand it, is have two crews.
Flightpath: You have to have two separate broadcasts.
John Carey: That’s right. Now that also makes it more expensive compared with HD, because with HD you can just downgrade it to standard resolution.
So you have some movies, and more movies are being produced. You have sports. It remains to be seen how much they’re gonna shoot of other things.
Be sure to come back next week for part 2 of our interview on 3D with John Carey.