The Road To 3D TV – History and Basics

3D in Film and TV through the years

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

Let's take a look at the beginnings of 3D in film and get an insight into its current status.

3D Film on left, 3D TV on right
Lifewire / Ashley Nicole DeLeon 

The Beginnings of 3D

3D has been with us since photography and filmmaking began.

The first 3D movie was made in 1903 and the first publicly shown 3D movie was The Power of Love in 1922.

The first 3D "Golden Age" began in 1952 with the film Bwana Devil. Although there were some classic film titles 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, that attracted large audiences, the difficulty of presenting 3D on a wide basis with the technology available made audiences disappointed in the result after a few years.

The First 3D Revival

Despite declining audiences, studios didn't completely desert 3D. Progress was made in the 1970s and '80s but suffered from unmemorable 3D film titles, such as Jaws 3D, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn.

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

Enter IMAX

In the mid-1980s combining 3D with the IMAX film format made a positive impact. Although too expensive for mainstream movie theaters, 3D IMAX made headway as a "special event" experience, providing an impressive large screen 3D effect with nature, history, and travel content that seemed to be more accepted by audiences than the mostly B-class 3D movies previous presented. 

Instead of 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 CGI, motion capture, high definition, the use of digital projection in an increasing number of movie theaters, as well as more comfortable 3D glasses for Dolby 3D, Real D, and XpanD, 3D became more accessible than ever.

This "Golden Age of 3D" includes films ranging from 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. Movie studios not only film many movies in 3D but convert films originally shot in 2D into 3D to increase 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

3D availability at local cinemas 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.

Those lackluster attempts prompted several TV makers (such as Panasonic, LG, Sharp, and Vizio) to spearhead the creation of standards for products needed to provide the 3D viewing experience in the home. The first of these products became available in 2010, and 3D TV as we know it was born.

3D, if done right, provides an exciting viewing experience, and is 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 to integrate 3D into home entertainment.

3D TV's Bumpy Road

Although there was initial excitement, and while 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 '50s and '80s (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.

Vizio pulled out the 3D TV market in 2014, followed by Samsung in 2015, and LG and Sony in 2016. As of 2020, the remaining stock of 3D TVs is limited to used sets and anything that might still be unsold. On the other hand, many video projectors still provide a 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.

Technology Marches On

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 to evolve movie and TV viewing. Just as stereo led to surround sound, Laserdisc led to DVD, 3D has led the way to other solutions, such as increased resolution (4K, 8K), HDR, and Virtual Reality (which, ironically requires headgear that is bulkier than 3D glasses) as a way to draw in consumers. 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 more 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.