The Road To 3D TV - History and Basics

3D in Film and TV through the years

TV in 3D - Road into a mountain scenic
TV in 3D - Road into a mountain scenic.

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Although 3D TV has been discontinued (at least for the near future), 3D will not go away entirely as there are still many 3D TVs in use, and 3D content is being viewed in both home and at many local cinemas. Also, 3D is a useful tool in professional settings, including education and medicine.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the beginnings of 3D in film, and provide some further insight on what you need to know about its current status.

The Beginnings of 3D

3D has been with us since the beginnings of photography and filmmaking. In fact, the first 3D movie was made in 1903 and the first publicly shown 3D movie was The Power of Love in 1922. However, the first true "Golden Age" of 3D began in 1952 with the film Bwana Devil. Although there were some classic film titles filmed and presented in 3D during this period, such as Hondo, Creature From The Black Lagoon, It Came From Outer Space, House of Wax, and Kiss Me, Kate, attracted large audiences, but the difficulty of presenting 3D on a wide basis with the technology available at the time made audiences disappointed in the result after a few years.

The First 3D Revival

However, that did not prevent the studios from deserting 3D altogether, and some technological progress was made in the 1970's and 80's but suffered with, unfortunately, unmemorable film titles, such as Jaws 3D, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn.

Also, during the 80's 3D period, JVC introduced the VHD video disc format in Japan, which, included the capability to display 3D images on a standard CRT TV home TV (glasses required). Although never making it to the U.S., in addition to selection 2D titles, about a dozen 3D titles were offered before VHD was discontinued in the early 90's.

Enter IMAX

In the mid-1980s things began to change in the world of 3D with the incorporation of 3D technology with the IMAX film format. Although too expensive to be widely adopted in mainstream movie theaters, 3D IMAX presentations made headway by becoming a "special event" experience, giving audiences an impressive large screen 3D effect, combined with material, such as nature, history, and travel that seemed to be more accepted by audiences than the abundance of B-class 3D movies of previous periods. Also, instead of those terrible cardboard red/blue or polarized glasses, IMAX 3D began the trend of using active LCD shutter glasses that more precisely directed 3D information into the viewer's eyes. However, they were big and bulky.

3D at the Beginning of the 21st Century

With the introduction of new filming techniques, such as CGI, motion capture, high definition video, the use of digital projection in an increasing number of movie theaters, as well as new, more effective, and comfortable, 3D glasses technology, such as Dolby 3D, Real D, and XpanD, 3D became more accessible than ever.

This new "Golden Age of 3D" includes 3D films ranging from pure animation, such as Coraline, Up, and almost all Pixar films, to box office draws that combine sophisticated motion-capture, animation, and live-action, such as James Cameron's Avatar and Gravity drew moviegoers into the movie theater. As a result, movie studios not only film many movies in 3D but convert films originally shot in 2D into 3D in an effort to increase their box office appeal.

For additional references on the history of 3D in the cinema, check out the A Short History of 3D Movies (Widescreen Movies Magazine), Directory of 3D Movies, and 3D Movie Timeline Chart: 1903 to 2011.

Moving 3D Into the Home

The availability of 3D at the local cinema via the "Avatar effect" resulted in a move to provide 3D home viewing options. There were some attempts at broadcasting TV programs in 3D (Chuck, Michael Jackson Grammy Tribute) and on Blu-ray (Coraline, Polar Express). However, the methods used produced poor results for the viewer.

As a result of those lackluster attempts, several TV manufacturers (such as Panasonic, LG, Sharp, and Vizio) spearheaded a move to create standards for products needed to provide the 3D viewing experience in the home environment. The first products based on these standards were made available in 2010 - The 3D TV as we know it was born.

Why has 3D continued to capture the imagination of both filmmakers and moviegoers and the consumer electronics industry? 3D, if done right, can provide an exciting viewing experience, and is definitely a way for movie studios to make more money by getting consumers out their homes and into the movie theater more often and consumer electronics manufacturers used it as a way to get consumers to buy more "stuff", including a new breed of Blu-ray Disc players in order to integrate 3D into the home entertainment experience.

3D TV's Bumpy Road

Unfortunately, although there was initial excitement, and although many still chose to choose 3D as a movie-going experience as the exhibition of 3D films is lasting a lot longer than it did in the 50's and 80's (from 2009 and still going), adoption of home 3D viewing and purchase of 3D TVs fell short of expectations for several reasons, including poor marketing, different TVs requiring different glasses, and the resistance by consumers to having to put on glasses to watch 3D.

As a result, Vizio pulled out the 3D TV market in 2014, followed by Samsung in 2015, and LG and Sony in 2016. As of 2018, the remaining stock of 3D TVs is limited. On the other hand, many video projectors are still being made with the 3D viewing option. Also, upgrading to 3D for video doesn't necessarily mean you have to change anything on the surround sound side of the equation.

The Bottom Line - Technology Marches On

In terms of technology, just as we went from Black and White to Color, 4x3 to 16x9 aspect ratios, and analog to HDTV, 2D to 3D was a progression in the quest to converge the fantasy of film and TV with the real world.

However, 3D isn't the only way evolve the movie and TV viewing experience. Just as stereo led to surround sound, Laserdisc led to DVD, 3D has led the way to other solutions, such as increased resolutions (4K, 8K), HDR, and Virtual Reality (which, ironically requires headgear that is bulkier than 3D glasses) as a way to draw in consumers. Also, research and development of 3D viewing options that don't require glasses have been moving forward, but when it will be available (if ever) for consumers on a widespread basis anybody's guess.

For additional tips on viewing 3D, also check out our Complete Guide to Watching 3D at Home, which goes into more depth on 3D TV pros and cons, what you need to know about 3D glasses, and how to adjust a 3D TV for a good viewing experience.