3D Comes Home... But Who Will Invite It In?

By , Columnist

I was talking with my friend Bill Hunt from The Digital Bits the other day and the subject of Blu-ray 3D came up. We're occasionally asked what we think about this upstart new format. The honest answer is we don't think about it much at all.

Blu-ray 3D has just barely begun to penetrate the home video market. There have been attempts to bring the 3D viewing experience home before. But these typically involved disposable red and green or blue anaglyphic glasses. It worked, more or less, but it also made every movie look like you were watching it through a Christmas tree.

Blu-ray 3D is the first really successful 3D option for home viewing. Even so, not many consumers seem to care. Part of the reason has to do with the titles currently available on the format. There are quite a few cartoons and children's films, several IMAX documentaries, a handful of gimmicky horror flicks like Piranha 3D and Saw 3D, and Avatar.

That's a simplification but not much of one. Many of the other films available on the format were harshly criticized for their poor 3D effects and/or simply not being very good movies. I don't know many people who want to own a regular 2D copy of The Last Airbender, much less pay a premium for a 3D version.

The format also came along at a particularly bad time. Blu-ray itself has only been around a handful of years and it had only started to get some traction in the marketplace when 3D was introduced. Consumers who just purchased their first Blu-ray player may be understandably resistant to the idea of upgrading yet again. Of course, you'll also need a 3D compatible TV and glasses before you can even think about enjoying the third dimension. In the midst of a lengthy recession, that's a lot to ask of your average customer.

The glasses themselves are an issue. Most 3D players don't come with them unless you buy a special starter pack, in which case you'll get no more than two pairs. That works out perfectly if you're a childless couple or have only one friend. But studios are targeting families with most of their 3D releases, so you're probably going to need more glasses and they aren't cheap. After you shell out anywhere from $50 to $100 for extra glasses for the kids, how paranoid are you going to be that little Billy or Susie is going to accidentally break them?

James Cameron, the most vocal 3D booster, likes to claim that this is just another tool at the filmmaker's disposal, as natural a progression as color or sound. But when sound was introduced, you didn't have to wear special earmuffs to enjoy it. There are companies now working on 3D technology that doesn't require glasses, ideally without causing seizures. But it's going to be awhile before it's ready for the market. Until that day comes, 3D is not just another ubiquitous tool. It's a gimmick.

The best chance 3D has at entering your home isn't through your Blu-ray player. It's through your gaming console. There's a lot of 3D news coming out of E3 this week and I'm not surprised. I don't even play video games but the idea of gaming in 3D makes sense. Gaming is interactive and the more immersive the experience, the more engaged the player becomes. Watching a movie is passive (or, if you prefer, the movie is supposed to interact with your mind and emotions, not your body). Someday it may be possible for a great filmmaker to use 3D to deeply engage the audience. But so far, it's more often merely distracting.

Hardware manufacturers are constantly introducing new formats and the truth is that most of them fail. Blu-ray 3D isn't necessarily a bad technology. It certainly works as advertised. It just isn't an entirely necessary one, particularly with a growing backlash against theatrical 3D presentations. For a new video format to succeed, consumers must be convinced that it's a significant improvement over what they already have. Right now, Blu-ray 3D is just an expensive toy.

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Adam Jahnke has been writing about film since age 13, when he began foisting a self-published newsletter on friends and family (copies of which are now mercifully lost to the ages). In 2000, he joined the staff of the highly respected DVD website The Digital Bits, where he continues to serve as columnist…

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