News Column

BBC to end 3-D broadcasting after 2-year trial

July 10, 2013

YellowBrix

July 10--Last week, the BBC reported it would wind down broadcasting in 3-D by the end of 2013, the conclusion of a two-year trial that saw a handful of movies, shows and the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in their three-dimensional glory.

Kim Shillinglaw, the BBC's head of 3-D, said that the technology had "not taken off" and that audiences found it too much of a hassle.

The BBC's ostensible failure to get stereoscopic television to take off is one more point on a troubling graph for the future-feeling technology. Though the ability to create 3-D images is over a century old, both gadget-makers and broadcasting heavyweights have tried a number of times in past decades to bring it into the mainstream -- without much success, other than big-budget features in the theaters.

Around the time the BBC started its pilot program, gadget-makers were trying to jump-start the market with new ideas for both televisions and smartphones with 3-D cameras. None of these technologies or products has gone extinct, but the marketing fervor has almost completely died off.

So why are 3-D televisions and cameras not taking off?

-- The chicken or the egg problem: Movie makers don't want to invest too much in the technology until there are more televisions to play them. Television makers don't want to invest too much in the technology until there are more 3-D movies.

-- Those 3-D televisions that don't require glasses need specific viewing angles.

-- And for those that require glasses, they look ridiculous.

-- 2-D does a good enough job.

Certainly, those are issues eventually solved by technology and market forces. However, film and sound editor Walter Murch, who worked on such renowned films as "The Godfather: Part II" and "Apocalypse Now" (for which he won an Oscar) has an explanation that has so far stood the test of time.

He points out that during a 3-D film, the audience has to focus at a constant distance -- from their eyes to the screen. In a movie theater this may be 80 feet; at home this might be 10. But the convergence of the 3-D image on the film will move quickly between depths, farther and closer than the screen. So we're required to focus at one distance and converge -- recognize something -- at another.

"And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before," he says. "All living things with eyes have always focused and converged at the same point."

Shillinglaw echoes the sentiment: "I think when people watch TV they concentrate in a different way."

Of course, our eyes have the ability to refocus on things from 10 to 40 to 140 feet away, but the problem is that 3-D requires that transition to be near instantaneous.

In real life, we take a second or two to make that change -- looking from your keyboard to something out the window -- but when a scene or camera angle switch, our eyes suddenly have to find the new focus.

And if we do that constantly -- especially when keeping up in a movie -- our eye muscles begin to tire and get sore. Many people get headaches or nauseated.

With that explanation, one possible solution would be for movies to be filmed from one perspective for long stretches of time. And keep the transitions slow, fading and deliberate, giving the eyes time. But that would start to greatly restrict movies, especially action flicks.

Munch edited one of the first famous 3-D movies, "Captain EO," starring Michael Jackson (the movie wasn't even 20 minutes long), but doesn't have much faith in the future of 3-D: "Dark, small, stroby, headache-inducing, alienating. And expensive. The question is: How long will it take people to realize and get fed up?"

Caleb Garling is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Read The Tech Chronicles blog online at http://blog.sfgate.com/techchron.

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(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle

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