3-D: The Next Big Thing Or Yesterday's Flop? Two companies debuted three-dimensional ads during Sunday's Super Bowl broadcast. 3-D hit the big screen more than 80 years ago, but some experts believe that the effect is poised for its biggest year yet. Does the promise of a movie in 3-D get you into the box office line?
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3-D: The Next Big Thing Or Yesterday's Flop?

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3-D: The Next Big Thing Or Yesterday's Flop?

3-D: The Next Big Thing Or Yesterday's Flop?

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Super Bowl commercials sometimes push the medium to its limits. Yesterday, some saw the proverbial envelope pushed right through the TV screen and into their living rooms. The broadcast included 3-D ads for the upcoming DreamWorks release "Monsters vs. Aliens," and SoBe Life Water. Yes, you needed special glasses, just like movie audiences did during the brief 3-D craze in the 1950s, but the technology has improved a lot. In recent years, some theaters showed 3-D versions of a few movies; more are due later this year, including James Cameron's latest. And some predict that 3-D's future has finally arrived. If you saw the ads, what did you think? Did you see a third dimension in the future of TV and film? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org; click on Talk of the Nation. Joining us now from the studios at NPR West is Jay Ankeney, a freelance editor and post-production consultant who's been following 3-D technology. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. JAY ANKENEY (Freelance Editor and Post-Production Consultant): My pleasure.

CONAN: And as high-profile as that commercial spot, it was not, in fact, the first time that 3-D was used to a Super Bowl ad. Diet Coke did one back in 1989. So, is this just a gimmick we can expect to see every 20 years or so?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANKENEY: Well, it may be, although this was a new technology that hasn't been used before. It's not the same kind of 3-D that we see in theaters. It's not really a true stereo 3-D, where each eye gets a separate image. This was done using a process called ColorCode 3D, which is a frequency - a color-frequency-spectrum analysis process, where the color information is conveyed through the amber filter on the left, and the depth perception, the parallax information, is contained - is conveyed through the blue filter on the right. The advantage of that is that you can show it on a screen where there's only really one image being seen at the same time. There might be some green and yellow halos around of the figures you're seeing, but it's not a double image on the screen, like most stereo 3-D processes are. The disadvantage, of course, is it's not as good as a true stereo 3-D process.

CONAN: And that better process is what you're going to see if you go see the movie?

Mr. ANKENEY: That's right, which is one of the reasons why a lot of people in the industry are kind of scratching their head. DreamWorks advertised their upcoming big-budget 3-D movie using a process that's not as good as what people will see in the theaters. So, as James Cameron said at the recent 3D Entertainment Summit last December, his warning was the only thing that can really kill 3-D in the future is bad 3-D.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANKENEY: So, the question will be, was what people saw yesterday good enough to get them in to the theater, or are people going to be thinking, hmm, colored glasses, two different colors, which kind of looks like the old anaglyph red/blue process - although, like I explained before, it's not really the same, but it kind of looks like that - the cheap glasses, is that going to be attractive enough to bring people in to the theater to see "Monsters vs. Aliens" - or any of the other 14 major feature films that are slated to be released this year?

CONAN: I did see "Beowulf," which came out awhile ago.

Mr. ANKENEY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: In a 3-D version, and you've got - the glasses you got, well, at least at the screening I went to, were pretty good.

Mr. ANKENEY: That's right. Those are completely different glasses. They're the real D process, which is a polarizing process. It's actually - so the left eye and the right eye are looking at two separate images being projected in rapid sequence on the screen, so quickly on the screen that they kind of look to the eye as if they're there at the same time. Now, that polarizing process is a much clearer 3-D image, and it gives you a much greater sense of depth. There was also, I thought, quite a bit of color bleeding in the ColorCode 3D that we saw yesterday, which would not be in the polarized process because the polarized process gives you two discrete images to the left and the right eye.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Now, I remember the process - regrettably, I'm old enough to remember the 1950s...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And you know, Vincent Price would constantly be doing stuff to, you know, sort of use the technology, you know, throwing things at the...

Mr. ANKENEY: Like spheres coming out of the screen.

CONAN: Exactly, that sort of stuff, yeah.

Mr. ANKENEY: Right, right.

CONAN: And that did get a little tiresome after awhile.

Mr. ANKENEY: Yes, it did. You know, actually, 3-D presentations go back to 1922, which was the first publicly shown 3-D exhibition, at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. So, they've been around for a long time. One of the key things that has changed now, though, not only the fact that we're using full color because of the polarizing process seen in theaters, but also a number of very clever cameramen, most notably, Vince Pace, has done a great deal of research into why 3-D used to give you a headache, why it was so disorienting, and how to improve it. And one of the key improvements that they've made is called adjusting the convergence for each shot. So, as we know that our eyes kind of tow in and tow out as the images get closer and further away, they now do the same thing with the cameras that are being used. So, there's actually a convergence engineer on the set who makes sure that the point of focus of the scene is the same point as the point of convergence. Actually, it's not always exactly the same; that's a creative aspect that can be manipulated. But this making sure that the convergence matches where the eyes want to be is one major reason why modern 3-D is nowhere near as nauseating as earlier 3-D used to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, joining us - this is Jay Ankeney, who's a writer for TV Technology Magazine. We're talking about the 3-D commercials you saw on the Super Bowl last night, or maybe didn't see, and the future of 3-D technology mostly in the movies. What did you think of the commercials last night? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Peter is with us on the line from Nampa, Idaho.

PETER (Caller): Hey, Neal. I love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

PETER: I work in a movie theater, and we have a 14-screen, it's all 35 millimeter, but we're going through a phase right now of eliminating those and putting in the real D digital projectors that can run either a normal 2-D movie or 3-D movie.

CONAN: So, it's worth the extra investment? I don't know if you - this is your decision, Peter, or not?

PETER: I have no decision in it. I just get to play with the stuff. It's real fun stuff.

CONAN: And it's cool stuff. So, you're going to have, instead of the old big reels of 35-millimeter film, you're going to be playing, what, off a DVD?

PETER: Not really a DVD; they kind of send it through as a hard drive.

CONAN: Really?

PETER: And we downloaded it on to a computer that's got about a terabyte of information on it, and just kind of runs itself.

CONAN: So, you don't have to wait for the delivery man to bring those big bags of films anymore?

PETER: We still have to wait for - it's kind of like a pelican box. It rolls in, and we just have to set it up, and no more building and breaking down, so no more using the splicer, which is kind of ruining it for us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANKENEY: And Neal, you know that many of - some of the delivery systems that are being developed actually use satellite. So, you don't even need a physical disc. You can actually just get it over the satellite, download it on to your server in the studio - and in the cinema.

PETER: I think we toyed with that for a little bit, but what we found that it was kind of ineffective when we were just kind of - we're kind of pioneering the whole idea right now, and you - there are really no theaters in even this areas that have more than one or two, and we're probably going to have three by the end of the year. And as we're doing this, we're packing up our old 35 millimeters and send them off to another theater.

CONAN: So, what's the first film that you know of that's going to be showing in 3-D there in Nampa?

PETER: Well, the first film we've got was actually "Meet the Robinsons" way back. That was the very first digital 3-D that we got, and now we're running at least the 2-D digital every week. And I think the next one that's going to come out here is probably "Monster vs. Aliens," and I can tell you personally, I'm excited about it.

CONAN: All right, Peter, thanks very much. Good luck with that.

PETER: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go to - this is Scott, and Scott with us from Mayfield in Kentucky.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi. I'm in western Kentucky, and I couldn't find the glasses anywhere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCOTT: All the stores I went to, a lot of them hadn't even heard what I was talking about. So, I went to five different places.

CONAN: And that's a problem people are going to have if you're going to be doing this stuff on TV, Jay Ankeney.

Mr. ANKENEY: That's true. Getting the glasses out there was a problem. They did - they distributed 125 million of them. And here in Los Angeles, they were fairly easy to get. I actually made a point of - since I wanted to see the show in the - with a crowd, I went up to one of our local sports bars, and they had a pile of them there. You know, the real - one of the really ironic things, even these glasses were free, they were being sold on eBay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANKENEY: People will buy anything.

CONAN: I guess. So, Scott, as you watched the commercials last night on the Super Bowl, what did you think without the glasses?

SCOTT: Well, I could tell that it was supposed to be neat to look at, but it wasn't so special for me.

CONAN: All right. Well, are you guys there in Mayfield having - still having problems with the ice?

SCOTT: Yes, terrible problems. We still don't have power. I'm lucky I'm on the phone right now. It hasn't been working all day. It's a real problem down here.

CONAN: We understand that, and good luck with that. Appreciate the phone call, Scott.

SCOTT: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's - well, what did you think, Jay Ankeney? Obviously, I know you didn't - thought the technology was not the best that could have been, but nevertheless?

Mr. ANKENEY: I thought it was very impressive, frankly. It worked. You definitely got a 3-D depth impression. I made a point of going out and asking many as people, both at that sports bar, and I was also at parties afterwards, about what they thought about it. Most people liked the experience. Most people got the 3-D depth. The biggest complaint was that because the way these glasses worked, it also cuts down the amount of light that comes through. So, it was a little dark to some people. But you did get the 3-D depth. Again, my main concern is it's not - since it's not as good as what you see in the theaters, is this going to give people the false impression of what they will expect when they go down and plunk down their, you know, their $14 to see "Monster vs. Aliens" or any of the other really good movies?

CONAN: Now, let's get Jaime on the line, Jaime calling from Cincinnati.

JAIME (Caller): Well, yeah, I - my question is, with the technology of televisions in screens and everything nowadays, when do we see 3-D without any glasses? Is that technology in the near future?

Mr. ANKENEY: Well, you know, I can tell you that they're working on that. You have the basic problem that you always have to deliver in some way a discrete image to the left and the right eye, or at least fool the brain into thinking it's getting a discrete image. So, they have what are called auto-stereoscopic displays that are being developed. The early ones had seven or 11 views, which meant seven or 11 pairs of left and right eye images coming out of the screen, and they looked pretty gimmicky. You shake your head, you move your head, you'd lose the illusion. But Philips has come out with one that has 46 views, and the improvement is so impressive that you just have to sit back and say, well, if you go from seven to 46, it's pretty good. So, when - once we get them to 100, 200, will it be acceptable? I don't know. I can't imagine they'll ever be able to do it on a large screen, though. I can't see how you'd get an auto-stereoscopic effect to work off a large screen. But who knows?

JAIME: Do you think that's a technology that would make it in - I mean, they've got high-def 8020 or whatever it is television sets now. Is that thing is - do you think that's a technology that will take off?

CONAN: Somehow, I think even if they get the technology...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're going to have to buy new TV sets, Jaime.

Mr. ANKENEY: Well, actually, Neal, you know, there's an interesting thing, that almost all of the sets sold since 2007, all of the large-screen LCDs and plasma sets, are actually 3-D ready right now.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. ANKENEY: Yes, because they - what they did was - you know, 3-D has had a great advantage of the kind of piggybacking on top of some other technologies that have been developed, not really with 3-D in mind. For example, digital cinema was - pushed digital cinema in theaters. It was really to cut the cost - it cut the cost of distribution and the cost of destroying the prints after the run is done. People may not be aware that destroying a print, to be ecologically safe, is rather expensive process. So, if you can replace that with files that would just have to be send around either satellite or fibrotic or, like the gentleman before was talking, hard drives, that would make the distribution much simpler. Well, lo and behold, they discovered that it's not a big step to convert a digital cinema projector into a 3-D projector. It might cost $70,000 to $100,000 to install the digital cinema projector, but moving it up to 3-D, it's only another $20,000 or so.

CONAN: Hey...

Mr. ANKENEY: So, that's not a big deal...

CONAN: So, drop in the pocket.

Mr. ANKENEY: Well, in the same way, 3-D is benefiting from what's happening with home TV sets, because, like I said, the large LCD panels and plasma panels, they've developed a 120-frames-per-second process; they call it a 120 hertz refresh rate. And they did that, really, so that you'd have action scenes and sports presentations would look smoother. Well, once you get 120 frames per second coming off of that screen, obviously you could divide that in half; get 60 for the left eye, 60 for the right eye. So, with a modest conversion - you have to hook up either an upward box(ph) or a PC - you can actually present very, very good 3-D at home. Now, of course, you still have to use the glasses with this. That's not auto-stereoscopic...


Mr. ANKENEY: But it's - almost everybody's set in the last two years is ready for it.

CONAN: Jaime, thanks for the call.

JAIME: Thank you for taking it.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Jay Ankeney about the future of 3-D in movies and on TV. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Robert's on the line, Robert calling us from Phoenix.

ROBERT (Caller): Yes. I'm a member of the National Stereographic Association, and at last year's annual convention, one of the presentations, the two most impressive, one was showing the surgery on lazy eye surgery and how it is remedied, and you could watch the surgery as it was being done.

CONAN: In 3-D?


CONAN: Wow. I didn't know about that application, and that's obviously, if you're teaching doctors, that's enormously beneficial.

ROBERT: That, and they had another one that was re-digitized - and they do a lot of digital presentations at the moment - and that was a tour of the United States done by a company that built roadways in the United States in the late 1940s.

Mr. ANKENEY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Can I ask about that, Jay Ankeney? Can you go back and take old movies and you know, "Ben-Hur" or something, and then make it 3-D?

Mr. ANKENEY: Actually, there are technologies that can do that. Even more exciting than that, there are literally technologies that can create 3-D on the fly. I've seen demonstrations of football games being shown, live football games, being shown on a 3-D screen with a very believable 3-D effect, and they were being done on the fly. So, not only can you go back and convert movies if you want to - you know, computers can extract images and very simple ways - you can actually take live broadcasts and convert them to 3-D. The question is, do people want it?


Mr. ANKENEY: Do people want to be stuck using those glasses?

CONAN: Robert, thanks for the call.

ROBERT: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to Carrie, Carrie, another caller from Cincinnati.

CARRIE (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE: Hi, Jay.


CARRIE: I have a comment and a question. We watched the Super Bowl commercial, myself and my three sons, and we had the glasses, and they weren't that impressed, but it's - it won't really stop us from seeing the movie because they just want to see the movie. But I noticed that it wasn't - we also watched "Journey to the Center of the Earth" at home on DVD, and we had the glasses. And that seemed really blurry when we were watching it, but the 3-D commercial wasn't, and I was wondering if that was the two different technologies.

Mr. ANKENEY: Well, if I could say, that's one of the things James Cameron was warning people about. When they released "Journey the Center of Earth" in the home version, they did it when an anaglyph processed. You probably have red and green glasses, right?


Mr. ANKENEY: And it was nowhere near what you saw in the theaters. And people like Cameron are very concerned that will give people the wrong impression. Now, I can tell you that recently a company called SENSIO has been adopted by the DVD form for the new proposed standard for a 3-D DVD that may actually be hitting the market by Christmas, and this will be full color. This will be the same kind of quality you see in the theaters. If that happens, it's going to be a whole different ball game. But I've got to say that "Journey to the Center of Earth" disc that you saw is one of the things that has people in Hollywood concerned. They did the same thing with the Hannah Montana concert that was released awhile ago. That was released for home viewing on anaglyph discs. And again, it's not what people are going to see in the theaters.

CARRIE: Now, so that was - was that a different technology than what was used in the "Alien vs. Monsters" commercial?

Mr. ANKENEY: Well, you mean used on the Super Bowl broadcast? It was a different technology. Yes, it was different.

CARRIE: And that's why it wasn't as blurry, the commercial?

Mr. ANKENEY: That's right.

CONAN: All right.

CARRIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Carrie, would you watch a TV show like that, if you have to wear those glasses?

CARRIE: Yeah, we're going to watch...

Mr. ANKENEY: "Chuck."

CARRIE: What is the one that's coming out?

CONAN: "Chuck."

Mr. ANKENEY: "Chuck" is on tonight.

CARRIE: Yes, we're going to watch "Chuck." So, yes, we would.

CONAN: All right, Carrie. Thanks very much.

Mr. ANKENEY: But would you want it as a mainstream medium? That's what I'd like to know. Would you like to have most of your broadcast be shown in that format?

CONAN: I guess we'd had to figure out and get more comfortable glasses. The cardboard can chafe your ears after awhile.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANKENEY: Yes, it can.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jan Ankeney. Appreciate your time today.

Mr. ANKENEY: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Jay Ankeney is a freelance writer and post-production assistant, also writes for TV Technology Magazine, joined us from our studios at NPR West. Tomorrow, we'll talk about what happens in the office after the layoffs to morale and productivity, and how much difference does it make as to how the process works and how the layoffs are handled by the bosses. That's tomorrow on Talk of the Nation. Join us then. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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