hen the man behind the highest-grossing film of all time announced plans to make a $200 million sci-fi epic entirely in 3D, eyebrows raised across the industry. Family animations in 3D are one thing, but that kind of outlay on a film with narrow genre appeal and so few 3D-capable cinemas? It would be a titanic gamble for any studio to take.
But James Cameron isn't merely a director. He knows 3D far better than most, and if he says its time has come, important people take notice.
"Watching a stereo movie is looking into an alternate reality through a window," Cameron told Variety, before cranking the hype a notch further. "I believe that a functional MRI study of brain activity would show that more neurons are actively engaged in processing a 3D movie than the same film seen in 2D."
Such bluster comes easily to 3D's chief evangelist, and if he has his way - which looks likely, given the raft of demos at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) - 2009 will be the year 3D comes of age as an entertainment medium.
The signs are plain to see. Nvidia is working with games developers to build 3D directly into their latest releases, and with monitor manufacturers to bring it to your desktop. Cinema chains are rolling out 3D projectors across their theatres, while TV manufacturers progress from HD to 3D-ready sets.
And then there's Sky, buoyed by its booming high-definition service, announcing audacious plans to beam 3D to your living room via your existing set-top box.
Put simply, all parties agree that today's 3D technology works. The glasses are more Matrix-chic than the red-and-blue specs of the 1980s, and the issues that plagued 3D in the past have been all but eliminated. So, just as HD has become the must-have upgrade, the industry is betting big on 3D being next.
The 3D desktop
So what's changed? Most people remember those red-and-blue anaglyph glasses and, while they couldn't be further from the current state of 3D, the core concept still applies.
To achieve any stereoscopic effect, each eye must be shown a slightly different perspective of an image to simulate the way we see things in the real world. If done with suitable accuracy the visual cortex of the brain is tricked into fusing the two images into one, resulting in the perception of depth. Anaglyphs achieved this with colour filters, but in recent times two more advanced approaches have been developed.
Polarisation is the simpler method: the left and right images are interlaced and displayed together on a special LCD, with a filter over the screen to polarise alternate lines at opposing angles. Corresponding lens filters on a set of cheap polarised glasses allow each eye to see only half of the image.
The more advanced and expensive method uses active-shutter technology: this doesn't require a special filter on the LCD, but instead uses battery-powered glasses with liquid crystal shutters on each lens.
As the two images are rapidly alternated tens of times per second, a transceiver synchronises the shutters in the lenses to open and close in time with the left and right images on-screen, so each eye sees only its intended image for half the frames in each second.
Until now, polarisation has been the main type of 3D available to gamers, thanks to Zalman's Trimon monitors. We tested them in 2007 and were impressed by the lack of eyestrain and the depth in the games that were supported.
But that support was the key stumbling block: the list of compatible games was short and lacked any recent blockbusters, while the adapted Nvidia driver was based on 18-month-old code and only worked with last-generation graphics cards.
Being a low-key components manufacturer rather than a major graphics player, Zalman found it tough to persuade games developers and Nvidia to play ball.
What 3D really needed was a major name with the clout to prompt both the gaming world and the monitor market into action, and at CES this year it got it. Nvidia announced its GeForce 3D Vision project, which takes advantage of its relationship with the world's biggest games developers to overcome a major issue that's held back 3D.
Put simply, the biggest factor in determining the overall effectiveness of 3D is the starting point. Converting a flat 2D image to 3D will never be truly accurate and effective because, without information about the positions of the objects in the scene, all depth must necessarily be estimated.
In contrast, GeForce 3D Vision is centred on the inherent advantage today's games hold over existing films: they're generated on-the-fly, which means with a few tweaks it's possible for the Nvidia graphics card in your PC to convert the game engine into ready-made 3D before it renders the image.
So, by reading the z-buffer (depth) information in the code, 3D Vision knows precisely where objects should be in the scene and can dynamically alter their position to produce two images that accurately represent the perspective of each eye. The difference this makes to the 3D effect is enormous, and must be seen to be truly appreciated.
Nvidia has opted for active-shutter technology, which is a gamble. Unlike the interlaced image of a polarised screen, this produces a full-resolution image for each eye, so it pushes the graphics card harder than usual. Nvidia claims the frame rate should drop only between a quarter and a third, but you'll still need a decent PC to run it smoothly.
And then there's the primary reason Nvidia has waited until now to enter the arena. Today's desktop LCDs refresh at 60Hz, which is fast enough to avoid flickering and eyestrain, but as active-shutter technology works by alternating two images the effective refresh rate is halved to 30Hz. To achieve the same 60Hz smoothness a 120Hz display is therefore required, which is why Nvidia has partnered with manufacturers to bring the next generation of LCDs to the market.
Samsung's SyncMaster 2233RZ and ViewSonic's FuHzion VX2265wm are available in the US and the UK. These 120Hz desktop LCDs will be available in a bundle with Nvidia's GeForce 3D Vision kit. Initial prices will be high: Nvidia is talking $300 or more for its glasses and transceiver kit, and Samsung's 22in monitor will cost over $600. That may seem like a major barrier, but Nvidia is taking the long-term view.
"This is initially about getting the product out there for early adopters," said Ben Berraondo, Nvidia PR manager. "But with products like GeForce 3D Vision to drive demand, we can see all mid to high-end LCDs being 120Hz as early as 2010."
The biggest problem will be getting people to see for themselves how good current 3D looks, and in this task Nvidia may rely on another major player already taking those steps: Hollywood.
The big-screen pioneer
There's no doubt it's the big screen that's been driving 3D technology forward in recent years. IMAX cinemas give many the opportunity to see true 3D cinema for the first time, with short films chronicling the natural world and the environment making up much of the available content.
But as 3D screens have multiplied, Hollywood has upped its output. Late 2007 saw the release of Robert Zemeckis' $150 million film, Beowulf. Created entirely using motion capture and specifically marketed as a 3D experience, it more than made back its production costs, and 3D showings accrued 13% of the film's opening weekend takings in the US - despite making up less than 2% of the total screens.
3D porn in homes?
The porn industry has been credited with driving the development of DVD and internet video: will it help drive 3D video into homes too? Studios have been tripping over themselves to claim the first true 3D adult production. Stephen Shiu Jr, chairman of Hong Kong filmmaker One Dollar Production, is spending $4 million on a 3D remake of "erotic comedy" Sex and Zen. "Just imagine that you'll be watching it as if you were sitting beside the bed," he told Hong Kong's Sunday Morning Post. "There will be many close-ups."
The clamour for headlines isn't surprising, as the internet has hit the porn-film industry particularly hard. 3D technology is seen - initially, at least - as a way to beat piracy at a time when so much paid-for content is finding its way online. The industry needs to offer viewers something they can't get for free.
The opportunity certainly exists. Once early 3D TV adopters have watched their Pixar movies, they're going to need content to encourage them to keep those glasses on. Given the internet's chokehold on porn today, products such as GeForce 3D Vision could prove more useful than its makers envisaged: Nvidia has created a software video player to play back 3D content via its glasses, so resourceful studios could convert their back catalogues to 3D and see if consumers will start paying afresh.
Successful or not, 3D is already causing nervousness in the industry. "We're having trouble finding a male lead who is willing to undress in front of the camera," lamented Shiu. "It's a lot more difficult to find an actor than an actress for this kind of film."
The eye's on experience
We were given the chance to play with Nvidia's GeForce 3D Vision kit on Samsung's 120Hz monitor, and any initial doubts about its effectiveness were soon dispelled.
The glasses aren't exactly designer but they're comfortable (they fit over standard specs too), and they're clever enough to switch on and off when they detect 3D being displayed. The batteries give 40 hours on a single USB charge, and the depth of the 3D effect can be controlled by a dial on the back of the tiny transceiver; if your eyes hurt, you can dial down the effect on-the-fly.
Ironically, it's the gimmicky, pop-out-of-the-screen moments that soon lose appeal, whereas games that concentrate more on creating an immersive 3D world, such as Criterion's Burnout Paradise, prove more satisfying.
It's the accurate distance information that really makes the effect - vehicles actually look like solid objects as they snake in and out of traffic and we were surprised to find ourselves admiring the deep backgrounds far more than the foregrounds when roaming in EA's gorgeous Mirror's Edge.
It's impossible to explain just how immersive things can look when generated from the ground up as 3D. That's what Nvidia must overcome with this release: get consumers to see it with their own eyes, and 3D can definitely become the next gaming must-have.
Big Hollywood productions in 3D
In late 2008, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D raked in more than four times its $60 million budget. 2009 has already seen Disney's Bolt 3D nominated for an Oscar, and the low-budget horror My Bloody Valentine 3D recoup its costs in a single weekend. The big guns are joining the fray too: DreamWorks' Monsters vs Aliens and Pixar's Up are both due in 3D this year.
Releasing a film in this format is no longer the risk it once was, partly due to consumers' willingness to pay for the 3D experience. At last December's 3D Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles, DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg revealed the incremental cost of going stereoscopic on a $150 million animated movie was $15 million, which would be easily recouped by charging a premium on tickets.
Screen Digest analyst Charlotte Jones furthered the business case, noting that 3D screens were generating twice the attendance of 2D screens and three times the revenue.
Films that are created to be viewed in 3D create a lot of interest, which usually translates into additional revenue - such movies often outgross the 2D counterpart. And this has triggered the most important link in the chain: getting cinemas to invest in 3D technology.
The 3D conversion costs around $100,000 per screen, but companies such as Palace Cinemas and Village are both confident their chains will more than recoup the costs. Village charges $3 per ticket over and above the usual charge for 3D showings, but in part the cost effectiveness is about the number of 3D movies coming out.
Many hollywood directors and producers have 3D films planned or in production. Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg have teamed up for three Tintin films in 3D, and George Lucas is converting his Star Wars films for re-release. Disney will produce 11 animated 3D movies and six live action 3D films over the next three years.
In Australia, there are only a few cinemas which have DCI-compliant (Digital Cinema Initiatives) D Cinema screens, such as Greater Union's Marion Megaplex in South Australia. Other digital screens around the nation are what's called "E Cinemas" that operate at lower resolutions and aren't acceptable for 3D playback.
D Cinema uses a polarising filter to project a 2K (2048 x 1080) stereoscopic image using a single lamp and lens - an elegant solution compared with the complex twin-camera system used while filming.
Which brings us, more than a decade after he sank the Titanic, to James Cameron and Avatar. There are few directors capable of persuading a studio to part with more than $200 million for a project using a relatively unproven technology - but Cameron is no ordinary director. The water effects of The Abyss, the liquid metal of Terminator 2, the stunning sight of that sinking ship - he has always found new ways to squeeze more out of the available technology, and 3D is his latest obsession.
In fact, it was Cameron who co-developed the complex camera system for his 2003 Ghosts of the Abyss documentary, and this technology is now licensed out to film a good chunk of the 3D content being produced today. The Pace/Cameron Fusion 3D comprises a pair of digital HD cameras customised to fit closely together to mimic the positioning of the human eyes.
As the subject moves towards or away from the camera, the two lenses automatically angle themselves closer together or further apart, just as our eyes do, so when the two captured images are overlaid on the screen our eyes needn't compensate for errors in convergence.
The current generation of 2K DLP projectors, such as those being fitted by [[[Odeon]]], can display high-definition 3D at the cinema standard 24fps, and on the whole the result is a vastly more relaxing experience than the old anaglyphic method.
However, anyone who sat through Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D will agree with Cameron when he insists 3D used purely as a gimmick won't ultimately drive adoption.
"First and foremost the film must be a good movie," he told Variety. "The 3D should always be thought of as a turbocharger, an enhancer, to a work whose raison d'être is vested in its story, its characters, its style."
The 3D living room
By the time Cameron's vision of a Hollywood working in 3D comes to fruition, the cinema chains could find themselves under more pressure than ever before. Currently, 3D is viewed as safe from the curse of piracy, and has the novelty of its unique big-screen experience to attract consumers. But 3D technology won't take long to follow the swathes of HDTVs and Blu-ray players taking over living rooms in 2009.
In fact, it's already here. At January's CES show Samsung, Sony, LG and Panasonic all showed off their latest 3D televisions. Some used polarised glasses to produce the effect, others the active-shutter technology favoured by Nvidia, and they drew some of the largest crowds at the event.
Early prices are in the thousands, which mirrors the entrance of HDTVs; we've already seen how quickly prices fall once content becomes widespread.
The greater difficulty lies in getting 3D content to the TV screen. Panasonic has demonstrated Full-HD 3D video running off standard Blu-ray discs, and all parties are in agreement that consumers won't shell out for a new format so soon after the last, unnecessary HD war.
One halfway-house solution already tested is 3D sports nights at cinemas: in January, the US TV channel Fox Sports broadcast a 3D American football game to 80 cinemas across the country, and the feedback from fans was overwhelmingly positive.
"The live broadcast to... movie theatres across the nation is the latest example of how we can deliver our programming to audiences in new and exciting ways," said Jerry Steinberg, senior vice president of field operations and engineering for Fox Sports. "3D technology holds unlimited potential for the future of both sports broadcasting and live event production."
In the UK, Sky has more ambitious plans. In December, it demonstrated its high-definition 3D content on a polarised Hyundai 3D TV on a Sky+HD set-top box. There were 779,000 of these in UK homes at the end of 2008, and Sky is already calling its Sky+HD infrastructure "3D ready", but no firm timescale for a launch yet exists.
"For now it's a learning curve," explained Brian Lenz, BSkyB's head of product design and innovation, adding that Sky has since experimented by filming channels as diverse as Sky News and Sky Arts in 3D. "We've already discovered, for example, that filming sport in 3D requires fewer cameras.
With 2D you'd have to cut quickly to give a sense of depth, but with 3D the depth is already there, and every cut just means the eyes have to work to reprocess what they're seeing. Instead, we use much longer shots and let the eye pick out different things."
As the images from the twin HD cameras are interlaced together and optimised, the resulting picture fits within a standard 18Mbits/sec broadcast stream, so rolling out channels in the future could be achieved without new equipment. Which leaves Sky with two tasks: to gauge consumer demand and figure out the best method of monetising 3D TV.
It will require its own dedicated channels, so Sky will most likely charge a premium for access to 3D channels once enough content exists. As Lenz points out, with Sky being "both content producer and distribution platform", it's in a perfect position to dictate that itself.
Whether Australia will see 3D TV any time soon is debatable. The first 3D-capable televisions were launched here in the mid-2008, but Telstra's Executive Business Centre is one of the few installations of the technology so far. There's very little noise from major broadcasters.
The longer view
While 3D vision is undoubtedly a spectacle, it's the spectacles that manufacturers want to eliminate. Both Philips and LG have demonstrated TVs using lenticular autostereoscopic display technology that dispenses with the need for glasses.
Similar to hologram pictures that alter as you view them from different angles, a layer of lenticules over the LCD allows each eye to see a slightly different view of each pixel, reproducing the effect of the polarised glasses.
There are major drawbacks, though. The technology causes nausea relatively quickly, limiting it to short-burst uses such as digital signage and advertising. The viewing angles are poor, and then there's the cost, which will remain far beyond the realms of consumer devices for years.
So an affordable, high-quality experience without glasses remains a long way off, but can 3D in its current incarnation really break into the home? The consensus among consumers seems to be that the glasses are the main deterrent, but Cameron believes this is more misunderstanding than genuine resistance.
At the 3D Entertainment Summit, he argued that the practice of releasing 3D DVDs bundled with old-school anaglyphic glasses is "stunting 3D growth", when the industry should instead be demonstrating how far the technology has advanced.
His thoughts are echoed in a survey by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which finds that interest in 3D increases as consumers experience it first-hand. Nearly 41 million US adults reported viewing a 3D movie at a cinema in the past year; of those, almost 40% would choose a 3D movie over its 2D equivalent, compared with only 23% of those who haven't yet experienced it.
"When it comes to current 3D technology," said Shawn DuBravac, CEA's economist and director of research, "seeing truly is believing."
Getting people to see in the first place is the main objective for Nvidia, cable television providers, and the world of cinema, led by visionaries such as Cameron. With Avatar due for release in December he's in the prime spot to do just that, but don't expect him to stop there - he's already planning 3D's next leap forward.
"I'd love to have done Avatar at 48 frames [per second], but I have to fight these battles one at a time," he conceded. "Maybe on Avatar 2." By the time that rolls around he'll be filming not only for the cinema, but for our desktops and sofas too.