The coming 3D revolution: Hype or reality?

June 19, 2008
by Steve Tobak

One of the benefits of being a consultant is that you sometimes get to see really cool stuff before it hits the market.

I recently visited Kerner Optical--the stealthy special-effects unit that split off from Industrial Light & Magic a couple of years ago.

Among other things, Kerner is now focused on developing disruptive technology for a broad range of 3D applications. Without getting into specifics (because I can't) or technical gobbledygook--which you can get by checking out the company's research website--this stuff goes way beyond the current state of 3D movies, video games, virtual reality, and TV.

A recent James Cameron presentation provided some hints on what might be coming, but as some readers of this story observed, he stopped short of getting into any real specifics. Make no mistake, just like Kerner and others, Cameron has a lot invested in the 3D world. Still, I viewed his talk as more of a "heads-up and be prepared for what's coming" sort of thing. And something is indeed coming. But before we get into that, a brief caveat.

Some time ago, I wrote a post called "Top 10 technology flops" where I essentially trashed over-hyped technology that was destined to change the world and, well, didn't. So the last thing I want to do is overhype this.

In fact, you can read an entire history of 3D film-making here, and none of that technology is part of our current day-to-day lives. That said, I'm here to tell you that the 3D technology being developed today isn't your father's 3D technology.

The new stuff bears about as much resemblance to Creature from the Black Lagoon with the funky glasses as the consumer electronics and entertainment world of today resembles what my folks had back in the early '60s: a transistor radio, a hi-fi record player, and an 11-inch black-and-white TV with six whole channels of content.

Moreover, this new generation of 3D technology has the potential to be more disruptive than the introduction of the television set. You see, we currently spend a good portion of our waking lives communicating via two-way voice and viewing and interacting with flat video images. When you bring 3D imaging into the picture (no pun intended), the way we work, learn, play, shop and communicate changes. That covers a lot of ground.

Remember, we're not just talking about computer graphics, virtual reality, and displaying 2D content in 3D. We're talking about actual 3D data acquisition and display, and without the funky glasses. We're talking about the potential to visually immerse and interact with 3D versions of the Web, computer applications, games, TV, and, of course, movies. And let's not forget communications. This will take personal and business communications and conferencing to a whole new level. Add sensors and the visual experience can become physical as well, i.e. full immersion and interaction.

Some of the more advanced forms of the technology are already being used in scientific and medical research. And you know what that means. If there's a big market for it, the technology will eventually come down the cost, size, performance, and power learning curve. And the next thing you know, it'll be in your living room.

Of course, there are hurdles to overcome: hardware, software, display, power, eye fatigue, and communication bandwidth. It won't all happen overnight. But it will happen. And unless you're a really old fart, it will all happen in your lifetime.

If you have rugrats running around the house, bumping into and chewing on everything in sight, they will almost certainly raise their children in a computing and entertainment world that isn't reduced to a flat image. They will interact with objects and people thousands of miles away as if they're right in front of them.

Based on what I've seen, this isn't hype. It's the real thing.

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