The Who2 Blog

Not Buying the 3-D Revolution

Is 3D really the future of television?  Really? Really?

That was the claim at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. “3-D will steal the show” — that’s what the Las Vegas Review-Journal predicted.  The Wall Street Journal has the same angle. Panasonic calls 3D a “breakthrough in technology and the human experience” and says that watching the new 3D is “like actually attending the football game or looking out the window.”

Pshaw.  I’m just back from CES to throw frosty water on the whole notion, using a motion which may make it seem like the ice cubes are flying right out of the screen and into your living room.

Are we really talking seriously about 3D?  Apparently yes. Krazy old 3D with the same nutty glasses and the same sharks and airplanes zooming right past the camera and the same rock stars pointing right at YOU with their long three-dimensional fingers. The new-style glasses are even clumsier than the old paper blue/red ones, and who would have thought that possible?

The big shock of CES to me was how much the “new” high-tech 3D image looks like the old Vincent Price-era 3D image. With all the hype, I’d figured there must be something new and mindblowing.  But to my laymen’s eyes, the images looked more or less the same.

Besides which, nobody has yet explained to me why a gag that was a flash in the pan in the 1950s is now supposed to be such a great enhancer of the human TV experience.

Sure, the industry loves it.  To get 3D at home you’ll need one of the new high-def TVs, a new Blu-Ray player for 3D, and those krazy hi-tech goggles (at about $200 a throw). Now multiply by 114 million TV households in the United States. Now add another billion worldwide. 3D would be the greatest coup in the long history of home entertainment upgrades.

3D movies are fine, even lovable, as a niche concept.  Avatar or Up in 3D?  Sure, why not?  And I do believe that enhanced viewing is down the road in some form, possibly with the ethernet jacked right into our skulls.

But right now, on home TV, at a cost of $1000 just for the glasses, so that your family of five can pretend they’re “actually looking out the window”?  And so you can have five pairs of goggles on the coffee table (two pairs of them broken) along with the six remotes?

Are ma and pa really going to sit around in their living rooms wearing those glasses? Are teens really going to take off their 3D glasses 200 times an hour to glance down at their text messages?

Or forget the price and the glasses. 3D is still a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.  The thrill of a Super Bowl touchdown is enhanced maybe 0.01% with 3D. The real pleasure in watching the game is the emotion, the rooting, the personalities, and the touchdown itself.  The thrill is not (with apologies to NFL Films) seeing the ball spiraling past in slo-mo 3D as if it were disappearing over our heads into the spare bathroom.

The notion of 3D as high-tech’s future reminds me of the CD-ROM era, when interactive storytelling was supposed to be the next big breakthrough.  “Choose your own ending!” The magician Penn Jillette told Wired something very perceptive then: “Two thousand years ago, I could tell you a story, and at any point during the story I could stop, and ask, ‘Now do you want the hero to be kidnapped, or not?’ But that would, of course, have ruined the story.”

He’s right. Choosing your ending may sound swell, but it doesn’t really improve storytelling, and in fact it’s a misreading of what storytelling is all about.  Same thing with 3D: it won’t make watching Mad Men any more fun.  The added value is just not compelling enough to make it the next big thing.

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