Technology / 25 September 2014, 6:00pm / GUY WALTERS
London - The next big thing in home entertainment, they called it. After going colour, then high-definition, it seemed inevitable that television would move into the third dimension.
And so, since around 2010, set manufacturers such as Sony, Samsung and LG have been insisting that we should all be watching programmes in 3D.
Broadcasters, including the BBC, Sky and sports network ESPN, were in on the act as well. To much fanfare, they created whole new departments at the cost of millions to take advantage of this supposedly must-have technology.
For a while, people seemed convinced. Some 1.5 million 3D TV sets — costing roughly 25 per cent more than a traditional TV — have been sold in the UK over the past four years. It was estimated that around half of those households donned their 3D glasses to watch the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
And then, without warning, 3D TV fell very flat indeed.
Like Betamax — the video tape format that never triumphed over its rival VHS — 3D TV now appears destined for the landfill, alongside all those other technologies that were supposed to revolutionise our viewing habits.
Last week, Sky all but admitted that it would no longer be broadcasting Premier League football matches in 3D.
The broadcaster said that it would be “more selective” with its coverage, which many understand to be shorthand for winding it down.
Sky’s lack of commitment follows that of the BBC, which halted all its 3D production last November. The then head of the Corporation’s 3D department was brutally honest in her assessment.
“I have never seen a very big appetite for 3D television in the UK,” said Kim Shillinglaw, who is now controller of BBC2 and BBC4.
That waning appetite has been mirrored across the Atlantic.
At the end of last year, ESPN pulled the plug on its 3D channel, because of — in its own words — “limited viewer adoption of 3D services to the home”. So what happened? Why has 3D TV all but died a death?
The simple answer is this — viewers hate 3D, especially in their living rooms.
Unlike watching normal TV, watching 3D TV is a hassle. Special spectacles have to be worn, and as any glasses wearer will tell you, scrabbling around for your specs before a programme starts is annoying.
And, even if you do find your 3D glasses, they have their own issues.
Many 3D TVs require you to wear “passive” glasses — the lightweight plastic type you’d be given at a 3D cinema.
But the problem with these is that they make the screen appear dim, and also halve its resolution — the amount of detail shown on screen. So, although you may be watching a programme in 3D, you are also watching footage of vastly reduced quality.
To get around this, some manufacturers have produced “active” glasses. These electronic devices employ a “shutter” system — alternately blocking each lens at rapid speed — that produces a 3D effect when used to watch the screen.
However, these are expensive, costing around £50 per pair, and require batteries.
Worse still, despite their expense, your Sony “active” glasses will not work when you watch a 3D film on, say, a friend’s Panasonic TV — and vice versa — meaning your active glasses can only be used with a television made by the same manufacturer. The niggles do not end there.
Many viewers find that watching 3D television gives them eye strain, headaches and even migraines.
The reason for this is because the brain finds a simulated three-dimensional image utterly confusing.
In the real three-dimensional world, when we focus on a specific object, everything else goes out of focus. It is that process which gives what photographers call “depth of field”, by which we perceive distance.
However, with 3D television, every object on the screen remains in focus — for they only appear to exist in three dimensions.
And it is that artificiality that causes problems, as our brains attempt to make sense of it all.
“We are still only focusing on a 2D surface, which is very unnatural for the human brain,” says Paul O’Donovan, an analyst at IT research and technology company Gartner. As a result, many viewers start to feel side-effects.
In a test carried out at Eindhoven University in Holland, researchers asked 39 people to read some text on a 3D screen placed 10ft away. Of these, seven started to feel sickness, eye strain and double vision.
It is not surprising, then, that many eye experts have cautioned against children below the age of eight wearing 3D glasses, amid fears that they can damage developing eye muscles.
But, even if you are lucky and you can watch 3D TV without feeling sick, there is also the issue that might be called the “David Attenborough problem”.
A few years ago, when 3D was being heralded, Sir David suspected that it would never catch on.
Many of us, the veteran broadcaster maintained, use television as “wallpaper” — on in the background while we are doing other things such as knitting, cooking, or browsing the internet on a tablet device. Watching television is rarely an immersive experience, unlike the cinema.
“I don’t think 3D TV can be used as wallpaper,” said Sir David, “particularly because you need the glasses and when you put them on it’s very isolating. You become very unaware of the person next to you.”
Even though some of his own documentaries were made in 3D — such as Flying Monsters, a programme about winged dinosaurs — Sir David’s words were prophetic.
Although we may be happy to wear 3D glasses at a cinema — a place we visit purely to view something on a screen — when we watch TV, we simply don’t want to be so involved.
The other big problem is the lack of 3D programming on offer.
After James Cameron’s fantastically successful 3D movie Avatar came out in 2009, there was an assumption that many more film and TV companies would follow suit.
But making 3D TV and movies is an expensive business. Special cameras have to be used, as well as dedicated editing suites.
Most programme makers see 3D as a gimmick, and would rather spend their budgets on improving the sets, or paying for bigger-name actors. Walter Murch, an American film editor, and the winner of three Oscars for his work on films such as The English Patient and Apocalypse Now, spoke for many movie makers when he dismissed 3D.
The technology, he wrote in 2011, is “dark, small, stroby, headache-inducing, alienating. And expensive. The question is: how long will it take people to realise and get fed up?”
No wonder film studios and broadcasters are unwilling to spend vast amounts of money on a format that nobody really likes.
But if 3D is dead, what then is the future? What new technology will TV manufacturers be trying to flog us over the next few years?
The answer is Ultra HD, or also known as 4K.
Whereas a normal high-definition TV has 1080 lines of vertical resolution — the individual elements that up make the picture on screen — 4K has nearly 4 000.
This results in an incredibly rich and detailed picture. And, better still, watching it doesn’t make you feel sick.
It remains to be seen whether 4K will take off. That will require the televisions to be affordable, and for plenty of programmes to be broadcast in the format.
Once again, it’s a case of chicken and egg. People won’t buy the sets unless the programmes appear, and people won’t commission the programmes if people don’t buy the sets.
But you can be sure of one thing: 3D is a turkey — and a dead one at that. - Daily Mail