We haven’t been out to the theatre for a while and we really wanted to get something in before year end. The cinema was really the easiest choice so we decided to catch a film which has been making a fair bit of noise lately: “Avatar” by James Cameron staring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver.

For some background: I have been avoiding the cinema of late because I got in the habit of going to the cinema at unusual times when I worked for Telenor UK on shifts. The last film I went to see was the latests Bond flick “Quantum of Solace” at the Leicester Square Odeon Premier Screen. When I worked those ‘anti-social hours’ all those years ago I was able to go to the UGC Kings Road in Chelsea during the middle of the day and I was undisturbed by the plethora of munching and rustling associated with a populated cinema.

Side note: Please people, it is a cinema and not a bloody restaurant! That goes for talking too, I don’t want to hear your discussions during the film over the soundtrack. If you must say something keep it brief, and whisper it silently in the ear of your victim. Think of anything you must say with the lights off as a secret.

So, we pre-booked tickets for Wednesday nights showing of Avatar in 3D. I had promised Peter Wilson of the EDCF that I would go and see a proper 3D film in a cinema after standing up during a QA segment of the HD Masters Conference and declaring my lack of faith in 3D. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about because up to this point I had only seen short clips or colour shift anaglyph, and neither had impressed me.

The central theme of the film Avatar is that Humans have gone to the paradise planet of Pandora in search of an ore called “Unobtainium” (funny name but hey who am I to argue). The ore is best located in a forest which is populated by a race of blue hominids who object to their sacred forest being scoured for this precious ore. The native Na’Vi are an intelligent aboriginal race but who live a fairly simple life from the land and the land provides them everything they need in both sustenance and spirituality. The destruction of their forest by the Sky Dwellers is sacrilege and of course the corporate people from Earth just class them as intelligent “blue monkeys” who can be moved on as suits the mining needs.

The story is about recognising the native peoples values are different, and that the need for our own wealth is not to be at the sacrifice of others welfare.

Overall the film was very good, impressively shot, emotively written and the blend between the real and the animation was near perfect. The suspension of disbelief was maintained through the film and the illusion was maintained to the end. The development of the relationships in the film was rather predictable but then that was the point of the film so it could hardly be avoided.

Then I come to the 3D aspect of the experience. At the IBC conference 2009 in Amsterdam, Humax won an award and at the IBC Awards we were treated to a special preview of Avatar in 3D and this inspired me to go and see this film. The colours and the 3D elements were spectacular, the depth was not too intrusive and the 3D was put to good use in telling the story. One of the things I find about 3D is that designers are all too often interested in pushing an image out into the audience, rather than just giving a normal view depth and I think it is important that new films recognise that dramatically intruding into our visual space might make a big impact but it is not pleasant.

I can see that the new generation of cinema experience will be littered with 3D and I welcome this progression, however I noted a serious problem which I suspect will take the cinema companies quite some time to deal with and it is an old classic: ‘persistence of vision’. The movie shutters at a nominal number of frames per second and that is halved when you have the left eye and right eye to deal with separately. It seemed to me that the cinema is probably handling the movie 50 frames of progressively displayed frames per second and that equals 25fps per eye. Clearly however this leads us to a problem because the human eye has trouble with anything less than 50 fps. Cinema has always attempted to overcome this by flashing it’s 24fps three or more times to make it less flickery, however cinema has always suffered from the fact that you can’t do fast camera moves or have something move too dramatically across the screen. If you do, you notice the jumping and juddering of an object clumsily across the screen. Some people are more perceptive to this than others, much the same as some people are more affected by the cheap DLP projector “Rainbow Effect“.

So, motion artefacts and the risk of visual space intrusion aside, the prospect for 3D cinema is good. But I don’t think the same can be said for 3D in the home. The issue that I see is that 3D feels like it needs an ideal viewing environment, anything less and the experience breaks down quickly and you get a very substandard experience. Most viewing conditions in peoples homes are limited and the viewing experience rarely allows for optimum viewing. So unless you are buying a 50in TV for your modest living room or you are buying a 300Hz 1080p projector then I really wouldn’t bother with paying extra for 3D.

Fundamentally 3D is about competing: the cinemas need a way to bring people back into the screens since Blu-Ray and ‘Internet Video on Demand’ are again a capable alternative to the cinema. In fact the cinema has been trying different ways to call us back since the earliest days of home entertainment through Television. Early cinema was 4:3 aspect ratio and TV followed that, so cinema changed to a menagerie of “widescreen” formats (panavision, cinemascope, etc) which now gives us the 2.35:1 and 16:9 aspect ratios we know today. Surround sound was another area in which cinema battled to enhance the experience and was followed by domestic viewing. 3D is just another strike back from the movie community, but one which seems to be being followed more directly than ever by the more dynamic consumer electronics industry; perhaps because of the likes of Sony being in both camps. Standards for 3D in cinema have only recently started to settle and the standard for 3D Blu-Ray is now being completed.

However 3D is also being used by the consumer electronics industry to provide a differentiator in an increasingly commoditised market and this is especially true for the television manufacturers who have been hit worst.For set-top boxes and media players 3D is pretty much a simple affair consisting of handling the basic signalling correctly, but for TVs it is slightly more interesting. The process of 3DTV involves taking the video that is supplied (often side-by-side left and right) and then alternating between the two pictures, then using either a special coating and/or special glasses the viewer is able to perceive depth. This process isn’t particularly expensive to provide in mass-production but it gives a manufacturer a reason to sell their product at a profitable price. Current flat-panel televisions are being sold so cheap that almost no-one makes any money selling them and some companies are haemorrhaging money in the hope they might make a profit from their investments. A differentiator for iDTVs is a welcome thing for them, but the massive investment for a complex flat panel display with complex features looks like a waste when you will want some new technology in two years. The increasing complexity of the Set-Top Box means that it can treat the TV as a monitor and provide possibly more features than the iDTV with less committed investment. The new upgrade cycle becomes much easier if you buy a simple panel and you can upgrade your experience at any time with a new digital box plugged in.

I accept that I am ripe to be incorrect in my conclusions, I accept that many people will buy 3D ready televisions (in fact many already have and don’t know it!) but I maintain that actually only in cinema will the viewing experience be suitable for proper 3D. Perhaps I am being a purist, and perhaps I am bias, but these are my thoughts.

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