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3D TV - the white elephant in the room

Robert Weedon | Television | Saturday 6th July 2013

"The modern miracle you see without glasses."
-How to Marry a Millionaire trailer, 1953
That's how the then-new super widescreen format CinemaScope with its now-standard 2.35:1 aspect ratio was sold to audiences in 1953. What the marketing blurb was referring to, of course, was that with widescreen you get an intense cinema experience without having to wear a silly-looking, uncomfortable and headache-inducing pair of 3D glasses.

Widescreen was the film industry's answer to the rise of the 4:3 televisions and it worked because it gave audiences an immersive experience worth visiting a cinema for, without the gimmicks and false perspective of so-called 3D where all the characters appear to inhabit a world of cardboard-cutout layers that make actual buildings look like Camelot from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Fast forward sixty years, and the BBC have just announced that their two year trial of 3D television, at one time billed as the next big thing, is to come to an end indefinitely. With the exception of the Wimbledon 2013 final and a Doctor Who 50th anniversary special to be aired in September, that's it as far as the BBC are going with their trials of 3D television.

Even the head of the BBC 3D project, Kim Shillinglaw, whom you would assume has invested quite a lot of time in the project, said that there is a "lack of public appetite" and that research found audiences find it "quite hassly". And that's the point, most televisions sit there babbling away in the corner of living rooms while the viewers get on with reading a newspaper, eating, doing the ironing, at the same time.

I suspect that there is only a certain type of person with a sofa positioned directly in front of the TV who would be happy to sit there with a pair of 3D glasses. (You have to do this to get the best from the limited 3D viewing angle.) They probably have a properly calibrated surround sound system as well and a film collection mainly consisting of the Transformers franchise.

As Leo Kelion reported in January, 3D television was barely mentioned at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. A few years ago, manufacturers were trumpeting advances in 3D television but now want to tell technology correspondents all about super-high-definition TVs (4K) instead.

As with any new technology, you take a real gamble by buying anything early. Not only are new technologies expensive and prone to problems, but there's a high chance that the format you buy into will be a duffer; if you bought an HD-DVD player early on, you were probably quite cross when the format was discontinued in 2009 leaving you with only a handful of discs to play on your £1000 player plus a bill to replace that with a Blu-Ray machine.

Likewise, if you were persuaded by a TV salesman that 3D TV would be future-proof, you probably paid a substantial premium over even the best HD television on the promise there would be a stream of 3D TV channels for you to watch. ESPN Sports recently announced the closure of their 3D channel, and with the BBC soon to close its 3D service, that leaves only a handful of Sky 3D channels and 3D Blu-Ray discs for you to use your television.

In cinemas themselves, the number of films being produced in 3D, or at least retro-converted to 3D to cash in on the increased ticket prices, have been slowly dwindling since they reached a peak in about 2009-2010 with the release of James Cameron's Avatar. Other than children's animated films or big-budget explosion-fests, narrative cinema has largely stayed away from 3D.

Movie studios loved the idea of 3D as they saw it as a format that was difficult to pirate, would offer them a selling-point over TV (which is now almost entirely produced in widescreen and high definition to standards often surpassing films) and gave them a premium product they could charge a bit more money for.

Mark Kermode devotes a whole chapter of his 2011 book The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex to demolishing the 3D craze. He persuasively demonstrates that throughout the history of cinema, 3D goes in 30 year cycles and always fails after being billed as the future, mainly because of those stupid glasses and because, other than a certain "carnival sideshow" appeal, the 3D distracts rather than adds anything substansive to the story.

Perhaps the biggest drawback with both 3D televisions and 3D cinema is that they are social mediums. Unless you're a sad case like me, you probably go to the cinema/watch TV with friends or a partner. The most common type of 3D glasses, RealD™, have such thick armstems that it robs you of your peripheral vision, so all you can do it sit there fixated on the screen. You may as well be watching the film at home in your airing cupboard.

But then, as we've seen, people also don't want 3D at home either, for much the same reason.



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