3D grows up: Stereoscopic technology continues to advance


Far from being in the doghouse, 3D is growing up. The economics in exhibition remain solid: Domestic 3D ticket sales scored a steady percentage of total sales over the past three years. 3D moviemaking continues to mature. If Texas Chainsaw 3D didn’t do it for you, then surely Gravity did.

Looking ahead, the audience appetite for 3D is slated to grow as 3D content finds new ways to entertain the consumer. Popular reports tend to focus on the declining percentage of 3D attendance in relation to overall movie attendance, but a deeper investigation reveals a more interesting story. Attendance for blockbuster movies released in both 3D and 2D in North America is growing at an impressive 15% clip year over year, a trend that has been driving up actual 3D attendance figures by 5% year over year. Underscoring the market strength of 3D, the format continues to generate over 50% of box office for movies released in both 3D and 2D. Internationally, 3D continues to outperform the domestic market.

Discerning audiences have learned that there is good 3D and bad 3D. Bad 3D has numerous contributing factors, but most often stems from poor production values. 3D production is a young art, and more and more professionals are learning how to produce good 3D. For instance, books are now available to advise directors, writers and cinematographers on the art of storytelling in 3D, such as 3D Storytelling: How Stereoscopic 3D Works and How to Use it by Philip McNally and Exploring 3D: The New Grammar of Stereoscopic Filmmaking by Adrian Pennington and Carolyn Giardina.

Audience expectations for 3D are changing, for the better. The “It’s not 3D unless something jumps off the screen” belief is changing as directors successfully employ 3D as a viewport to a world beyond the screen. However, whether one considers 3D cinema to be driven by the desire to achieve realism, in the manner of André Bazin, or in more liberal terms as a means of artistic expression, following the thinking of Jean Cocteau, there’s no disagreement that audiences want their 3D to be brighter and more comfortable to view.

The latest trends in 3D technology will help. The problem is that all 3D systems reduce the light seen by the eyes. The absolute maximum efficiency possible in any 3D system is 50%, as the light onscreen must divide equally between each eye. In practice, most 3D systems deliver less than half this number, caused by limitations of the various 3D presentation technologies. The simple fact is that, regardless of the 3D projection method used, brighter 3D requires an increase in lamp power at the projector.

There are ways to address this. Future high-end projection technology is moving in the direction of laser illumination as a more efficient, if not more costly, method of illuminating 3D screens. It’s also possible to squeeze more 3D light out of any lamp using more efficient methods such as light doubling, a technique used with polarized 3D systems. Spectral filtering, perhaps the least efficient method with Xenon lamps, promises to be the most efficient method with laser illumination.

But more light alone does not make a quality 3D image. Higher contrast is needed, coupled with a low level of crosstalk. In fact, an increase in light level without a corresponding improvement in contrast and crosstalk will result in bad 3D. Experience shows that techniques that utilize precision-matched filters in both projector and glasses achieve the best contrast and crosstalk performance. Other factors affect the perception of quality, such as the smooth distribution of light across the screen.

All of this, of course, must be filtered by the need to achieve a low cost of ownership. The dilemma of 3D systems is that there is no one method that satisfies all of the criteria outlined. While the polarization method is most popular, overall performance of these systems ultimately relies on that of the polarization-preserving “silver” screen. Not surprisingly, a significant and recent development in 3D has been the development of improved screen technology. In 2013, every major screen manufacturer introduced higher-performance silver screens, offering either higher gain with no sacrifice in viewing angle from prior models, or lower gain designed to increase the viewing angle.

Audiences accept the need to wear glasses in the cinema when viewing 3D movies, but consumer display manufacturers learned the hard way that the same consumers are not eager to wear 3D glasses at home. The early platform migration model was to first establish 3D in the cinema, then introduce it in television, and later move 3D into the realm of personal electronics. But this model didn’t work, because the technology employed in cinema is not the right technology for other content platforms. To address this, marketable auto-stereoscopic displays are now emerging. Notably, the technology path for auto-stereoscopic displays is moving in the opposite direction of the early 3D migration model, with glasses-free 3D displays appearing first on the small screens of smartphones and tablets.

Mobile 3D will further whet the appetite of consumers for 3D content. Streaming 3D into the palm of one’s hand is good news for the movie industry, as post-theatrical distribution has an active and engaged audience. Additionally, these devices will attract the fancy of a larger creative community of mobile game developers, app publishers, interface design and e-commerce. Not to mention, as dual-lens 3D cameras appear on smartphones and tablets, anyone can capture 3D, making the art form less of an event but something more habitual and daily. Maybe the next Instagram will be 3D only?

It’s now eight years since Disney released the first digital 3D motion picture, Chicken Little, starting a chain of events that pushed 3D out of the realm of novelty and into the mainstream. The little-known stereographer, once quietly tucked away in a back room, is now in high demand. The success of 3D in cinema, coupled with advances in auto-stereographic displays, is driving the introduction of 3D for mobile content platforms.

And, of course, success has also raised expectations for the cinema, the prime example being that audiences once impressed with 3.5 ft-L now clamor for more. New developments in light doublers, screen technologies and laser illumination will greatly improve the audience experience of 3D. 3D is truly growing up.