Technology April 2009

Television Outside the Box

Are you ready for 3-D TV?
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Halfway through Super Bowl XLIII, the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis instigated a skirmish among a cadre of hip-hop-loving lizards over a bottle of SoBe Lifewater, then morphed into a lizard himself. On the biggest marketing night of the year, however, a standard-issue linebacker-lizard spot has no chance of moving the needle. The solution? SoBe’s corporate parent, Pepsi, teamed up with Intel and DreamWorks Animation and reportedly distributed 125 million pairs of 3-D glasses—the eyewear needed to experience SoBe’s break-dancing reptiles as well as a three-dimensional trailer for DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens.

Watch the Baltimore Raven’s 3D superbowl commercial

Like a headache-inducing cicada, 3-D programming shows up on television about once a decade, only to disappear and be forgotten until whenever it appears again. Twelve years ago, NBC and ABC treated America to 3-D episodes of shows like 3rd Rock From the Sun and Coach; America reported back that Coach already had two dimensions too many. In 1989, Coca-Cola bankrolled a lizard-free 3-D Super Bowl halftime show starring a magician named Elvis Presto. “I’d just like to say,” NBC’s Bob Costas intoned sarcastically as he introduced the segment, “this is one of the single proudest moments of my life.”

But this year’s 3-D fodder might augur a new era. For one thing, 3-D movies appear primed to transition from a curiosity to a cultural norm, so long as Hollywood and the theater chains find the cash to build more usable screens, now at about 1,700. Starting this year, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks will release all of its features in three dimensions, as will Disney’s Pixar.

A splashy Super Bowl commercial, 3-D advocates hope, will not only drive traffic to theaters, but also acclimate us to in-home 3-D entertainment. At January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mitsubishi, LG, Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung trotted out “3-D-ready” televisions, Blu-ray players, and monitors. The always early-adopting porn industry—whose Adult Entertainment Expo was right next door to CES—got an eyeful as well, from a company called Glacier Media Systems, which showed off a PC capable of transforming 2-D films into, in this case, some frighteningly in-your-face pornography.

None of these products is ready for the mass market. While 3-D movie technology is now relatively uniform, the TV world has far less developed standards. The ads airing during the Super Bowl had to be viewed using amber-and-blue paper glasses; Samsung’s and Mitsubishi’s 3-D-ready TVs use “active shutter glasses,” which alternately cover the left eye and right eye in rapid succession. Some people are pushing head-mounted displays, and there are nascent autostereoscopic technologies that require no glasses at all. After the inevitable format war between HD 3-D, 3-D Max, and a gigantic red-and-blue Viewmaster, this should all get sorted out by, oh, let’s say 2050.

While we’re waiting, we have ample time to contemplate how the 3-D boob tube might change home viewing. 3-D and a movie theater are made for each other—since you’re already sitting in the dark, wrapping your face in a pair of dorky glasses doesn’t have any social costs. Gaming, another medium that requires you to stare straight ahead, is also a natural fit. But what happens to the 3-D viewing experience if you want to lie on the couch or have a conversation? TV watching can be active or passive, a lean-forward pursuit or background noise when we’re doing something else. 3-D is an active, opt-in medium, not particularly suited to skipping past commercials. Most kinds of glasses don’t work if you’re looking out of the corner of your eye.

According to Michael V. Lewis, the CEO of RealD, the firm that stocks most upgrading movie theaters with 3-D technology and glasses, the company’s early tests have revealed that what work best in the home are attention-grabbing spectaculars like concerts and sporting events. In December, RealD did a test run of a live NFL broadcast. The fans were “drinking, eating, jumping up and down—that’s really the benefit and magic of it,” Lewis said, noting that the combination of alcohol and 3-D glasses caused no vomiting. The out-of-screen experience, he says, gives people the illusion that they’re at the stadium, and their behavior changes accordingly. This seems like the best possible outcome for our 3-D future: sit down, put on some glasses, and your couch is on the 50-yard line.

Josh Levin is a senior editor at Slate.
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