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Interview: Professor John Carey of Fordham University on 3D Technology, From Photography to YouTube – Part 2

Professor-John-Carey-of-Fordham-University

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.”

Interview: Professor John Carey of Fordham University on 3D Technology, From Photography to YouTube – Part 1

Professor-John-Carey-of-Fordham-University

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.