Is 3D the Next Big Thing?

Following this year’s CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Sin City, the buzz word on everyone’s lips was 3D: “3D this, 3D that”. But will 3D be a craze, a short lived trend that dies down once everyone and their mother has ‘ohhed’ and ‘ahhhed’ at James Cameron’s Avatar? Or will it be ‘the next big thing’? Predictions such as these are notoriously difficult to make.

Why are these types of predictions so difficult to make? Well, some people believe that the future is ‘out there’ and that, with each passing year, we arrive into it. They imagine history akin to an airplane cutting through the clouds; or an adventurer hacking away at the jungle with his machete. This, of course, is linked to the notion of ‘Progress’.

Yet everything we know about technology indicates that this is not, entirely, the case. The next big thing is not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered. While this is a lucrative idea, the next big thing is actually the product of a very specific time and place. This does not mean that there is no ‘story’ of technological progress. It does mean that the next big thing is NOT exclusively a ‘better’ or ‘more functional’ upgrade to some past technology.  For this reason, predicting the technological future is notoriously difficult. How then, is is possible to provide a forecast of the technologies that might emerge in the future, or a statement regarding which technologies are likely to succeed? The short answer is that one can never be certain of the future, all one can do is make an educated guess.

Most people I’ve talked to balk at the idea of wearing bulky and awkward 3D glasses in the long-term. “Really…” they tell me “…will I ever actually wear those ugly glasses to watch a half hour sitcom, or sports highlights?”

(The future of 3D might reside in a method called Autostereoscopy, which is capable of displaying 3D images without glasses. The first downside of autostereoscopy resides in the strain it puts on the viewer’s eyes and its tendency to cause headaches. Another downside is that the 3D effect can only be seen by a viewer looking at the display head-on. If Autostereoscopy does not pan out one can imagine the possibility of prescription eye glasses and contact lenses with polarized lenses. But for the time being we’re stuck, I think, with polarized 3D glasses.)

What does not sit will with me is negating the impact of 3D technologies based on the argument that viewers will not be inclined to wear 3D glasses. The history of technology teaches that consumers have adopted awkward technologies, and even technologies of lower or worse quality than their predecessors. The history of technology is indeed a series of irrational adoptions.

The well-known story of Beta and VHS reveals this quite well. Between 1974 and 1975 Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS were engaged in a format war. VHS, as we all know, won out. But VHS was not technologically superior to Beta. In fact, many argue that Beta was the superior format. VHS, however, was marketed better and Sony had licensing problems allowing VHS to gain a foothold into the video market. Interestingly, pornography was not available on Beta while it was available on VHS. This was a time before the widespread availability of internet pornography and people had to either find a rental shop that stocked adult entertainment or go to an adult movie theatre. Here we see three factors: pornography, marketing, and licensing problems, responsible for the success of one technology over another.

Likewise, who would have ever imagined in the early ’90s that video games would go in the direction of the Nintendo Wii? Early projections of what virtual technologies would resemble tended to focus on the rise of a virtual world and a static user. (Think back to something like the film The Lawnmower Man.) In these projections the user sits in a chair and ‘acts’ in the virtual world. But the Nintendo Wii presents a virtual technology that engages the user’s body. The user does not sit in their chair and ‘act’ in a virtual world; rather she ‘acts’ in the space between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. The Wii Fit user ‘works out’ in a sort of physical-virtual netherworld.

Likewise, consider how .Mp3 has become the standard audio format. Is .Mp3 a particularly good quality audio format? No. Is it convenient? Yes. .Mp3 is a lossy format in contrast to a lossless CD. If this is the case, why did we go backwards from lossless CD quality to lossy .Mp3 quality over the past ten years? [The same argument applies for heavily torrented video files such as DIVX .AVI’s (usually around 700mb) whose quality is far, far worse than DVD or Blu-Ray. I would wager that teenagers have more DIVX .AVI’s than they do DVDs or Blu-Rays] What does this tell us about technological progress? Well, it tells us that each new technology is not necessarily better. One cannot predict the future simply by arguing that the next thing is the next best thing.

This brings us to those awkward 3D glasses. I, personally, would not be hasty in proclaiming that consumers will refuse to wear them. Stranger things – as evidenced by the three quick examples above – have happened.

Everything seems set to ‘GO’ for 3D. (Who could blame the industry for pushing it so hard: 3D is a format that, at the current time, cannot be emulated via torrented downloading or file sharing. One has to go to the multiplex or own proprietary software/hardware to run it.) Even the NFL has thrown around the idea of broadcasting in 3D. James Cameron has hinted at an Avatar trilogy. George Lucas is rumored to be working on a 3D version of Star Wars. A quick list of upcoming 3D films (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland,  Shreck Forever After, Toy Story 3, Friday the 13th Part 2, Yogi Bear, Beauty and the Beast, Cars 2, Smurfs 3D, Happy Feet 2, Garfield Pet Force, Tintin (trilogy?), Ghost in the Shell, Kung Fu Panda 2, Tron Legacy 3D) reveals that nearly every upcoming big Hollywood blockbuster has 3D plans. Couple that with the buzz at CES that TV manufacturers have plans to start shipping TV sets with 3D capability starting next year and you’ve got a recipe for either a tremendous success or a spectacular bust. I definitely, however, would not be quick to rule out the former!

But I don’t think, at the end of the day, it is wise to give an forecast based on whether consumers will wear the glasses. Consumers have, in the past, gone in directions that run counter to what is technologically superior (i.e. .mp3, vhs) and adopted systems (i.e. Wii) that run against projections of what the future ought to look like.

—————–Cybject is only a thought experiment ——————-

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~ by dccohen on January 19, 2010.

One Response to “Is 3D the Next Big Thing?”

  1. […] Continued here:  Is 3D the Next Big Thing? « Cybject […]

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