Feb 04

3D – television’s Quadraphonic moment

In the 1970s the music recording industry, searching for innovation, came up with Quadraphonic audio or ‘Quad’ as it became known to hi-fi buffs. It was one of the earliest consumer offerings in surround sound and it was a commercial failure due to its many technical problems, which were solved too late to save the technology from disaster. The format was more expensive than standard two-channel stereo. It also required extra speakers and suffered from a myriad of conflicting formats, as well as a lack of available high quality music. For most people stereo was just fine. Eventually along came the Walkmans, CDs and iPods that provided the real innovations people wanted in terms of audio quality and flexibility.

Surround sound continued however, mostly in the cinema, but most people I know who are not audio geeks seem completely indifferent to surround sound. Some even find it weird and distracting to have random noises coming from behind when the action is in front of them – after all, humans have evolved to fear loud noises coming from behind them for very good reasons! Of course having multiple speakers dotted around an auditorium makes the soundtrack sound fuller and is a good idea, but the mix has to be subtle and devoid of audio gimmickry. Good sound designers know this and keep their surround sound mixes under control for the majority of films, most of the time.

3D cinema and TV share some interesting parallels with quad audio and surround sound. Personally, I don’t really enjoy the experience of viewing 3D movies and the idea of 3D TV has a whiff of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ about it, hyped by TV manufacturers desperate to shift a new generation of TVs by pushing the technology to an indifferent public who have almost no access to decent content. Hollywood and the broadcasters also see 3D as a cash cow and are gasping at the finery of the Emperor’s latest outfit.

I saw two films last year that were in 3D. The first was one of the best films I’ve seen in recent years – Toy Story 3 – and the other was amongst the worst – Tron: Legacy. In both cases the 3D aspect was irrelevant. I would have enjoyed Toy Story 3 just as much, or more, in 2D and Tron was still awful despite some admittedly nice visuals.

If 3D actually worked, delivering a truly immersive experience, I’d be all for it but it just doesn’t. The heavy glasses (even more cumbersome if you’re wearing spectacles already), dim picture and the sometimes clumsy 3D implementation distract from the story rather than enhancing it. There’s also the problem that a significant minority of the audience without perfect binocular vision don’t see the 3D effect as intended, or at all. And 3D works best if the screen is filling your field of view, rarely achievable for cinema audiences and impossible on TV unless you’re going to sit two feet in front of the screen.

Of course 3D does have its place for those who like it and for the right film. An IMAX film, for example, can produce a great 3D experience. What worries me is that there will be steady pressure from the industry to produce films and TV shows in 3D that really don’t need it, ruining them in the process.

If you need further convincing that 3D is deeply flawed, American film critic Roger Ebert, also a 3D skeptic, has recently published a letter on his blog from respected film editor Walter Murch on why evolution has not equipped us to watch 3D images.

There are numerous technical, financial and aesthetic hurdles that 3D must overcome before it becomes mainstream. But like Quadraphonic audio in the 70s I suspect that it never will. I, for one, won’t be sorry.

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