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3D Dead? Don’t Count It Out Just Yet

Format has plateaued and will be stuck at this level until the technology improves

The recent announcement that ESPN is shuttering its 3D sports network has triggered another round of “3D is dead” articles.

But 3D isn’t dead. I do think, though, it has plateaued and is going to be stuck at about this level until the technology improves.

3D fans take heart, though: That improved tech is already on the way.

James Cameron has argued that once 3D TV catches on with viewers, studio slates will go all-3D, just as they had to go all-color after the TV networks did. But so far, 3D TV isn’t catching on. Steve Schklair of 3D tech supplier 3ality admitted pangs of doubt after the ESPN announcement. “3D television in the U.S., for many reasons, is just not going to happen in the current climate,” he said. “The audience is not being built.”

Vince Pace, James Cameron’s partner in Cameron-Pace Group (and Schklair’s direct competitor) blames the active-glasses 3D TV systems that most consumer electronics companies introduced. Too expensive and too difficult to use, he says. (LG and Vizio went with passive, RealDstyle glasses.)

“I feel that in many ways we’ve been in recovery mode for that misstep,” said Pace. He believes glasses-free 3D TVs and brighter projection in movie theaters will help the technology find far wider acceptance.

But Schklair notes that BSkyB’s 3D TV service in the U.K. is doing well. “It succeeds in the U.K. because of the quality and the non-repetitiveness of their offerings,” he says. Pace also observes that in England, the major driver behind 3D has been a broadcaster promoting shows in the format, not manufacturers trying to sell TVs.

Pace says the next window of opportunity for 3D will come with the arrival of 4K Ultra-High-Def TV. Creatively, he says, 3D and UHD match up well: Both benefit from wider camera angles and less camera movement than today’s HDTV. Cameron-Pace Group is already shifting its “5D” production systems (2D and 3D together) to one 4K camera and one HD camera (4K for the 2D feed; HD on both eyes for the 3D feed).

Also, crucially, 4K TV screens have enough pixels to make a glasses-free TV set practical. As costs for 4K sets come down, and “autostereo” TVs hit the market, that should help 3D, since people don’t like putting on glasses, be they active or passive, to watch television.

In theaters, 3D has had an odd summer. Two big releases in the format have come from filmmakers who are publicly indifferent or hostile to 3D: J.J. Abrams, director of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” and Christopher Nolan, producer of “Man of Steel.” (Zack Snyder, who directed the Superman origin story, proved quite adept with 3D in “Legend of the Guardians: Owls of Ga’Hoole.”)

The majors want their tentpoles released in 3D because it’s lucrative: By my very rough calculations, Warners got about $16 million from the opening weekend “Man of Steel” 3D upcharge in the U.S. But studios view theatrical 3D as a mature market and aren’t pushing it as a premium experience anymore — even though they continue to charge a premium for the tickets.

Looking ahead, Schklair and Pace report a surge of interest in shooting features in native 3D, the conversion-free kind that’s implemented at the start of the production process. So it doesn’t appear that 3D pictures are going to disappear. On the exhibition side, the long-awaited laser-driven projectors are being readied for market. That should solve many of the problems of dim projection and muddy color that have plagued the format.

So I think 3D is going to be sitting quietly for a while, waiting for laser projectors, UHD, glasses-free 3D TVs and the next generation of streaming VOD. Then look for it to rise up again, much to the dismay of those who have pronounced it dead so many times before.

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