3D: The future dimension?

Jan. 27, 2010, 12:05 a.m.

Golden Globe film of the year, top-grossing movie of all time, conversation piece at every dinner table – “Avatar” isn’t just huge, it’s a veritable 3D phenomenon. And now that 3D technology is at the forefront of public awareness, could it be that “Avatar” is only the beginning of a major technological revolution?

Aside from boasting star power in alumnus Sigourney Weaver ’72, “Avatar” is no exception to Stanford’s proud tradition of innovation in both the artistic and technical aspects of film.

Students and staff, whether personally involved or not, have strong opinions about the film and the future. Many were receptive to the film’s new and improved technology.

“I found Avatar’s use of 3D surprisingly understated and very effective,” said Tiffany Li ’13. “You could tell it was intended from the very beginning to be 3D, as opposed to earlier efforts which were essentially 2D films with occasional monsters or flying objects launching themselves at the audience.”

Film buff Peri Unver ’13, who has written for The Daily, gushed about the amazing visual experience.

“The cinematography was beautiful; it felt like you were actually in the beautiful forests and on the floating mountains of Pandora,” she said.

Film and Media Studies professor Scott Bukatman was similarly impressed with the aesthetically pleasing components in “Avatar”.
“‘Avatar’ was astounding – at least for the first hour,” he said. “I felt literally immersed in an environment, almost as though I was underwater. It was practically hallucinatory.”

However, he was also quick to point out some of the flaws of the 3D experience as it exists today.

“I have to say that I think it’s a bit less interactive – you’re kind of forced to sit with your head at a level angle, staring straight ahead,” Bukatman said. “I rarely talk to my partner – it’s even harder to eat Goobers.”

Indeed, 3D is by no means a new technology, but one that has been continually criticized and subsequently expanded for decades.

“Four years ago in 2006, Cameron was delaying ‘Avatar,’ waiting for technology to develop,” revealed Computer Science Professor Ron Fedkiw, who received an Academy Award in 2008 for his work with fluid simulations and other technological breakthroughs. His work has been featured in films including “Poseidon,” “Star Wars III,” “Terminator 3” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Harry Potter” series. He also consulted for some of the technical aspects involved in “Avatar.”

“So while ‘Avatar’ is a beautiful digital film, with 3D technology and great performance motion capture, these technological advances are only incremental on top of the pre-existing work,” he explained. “[The movie’s] real contribution to filmmaking is the ‘virtual camera’ they designed for making the film – that allows one to see CG (computer generated) elements along with the footage being shot.”

Fedkiw is confident that 3D technology will become increasingly prominent not just in film, but in video games and even home entertainment.

“‘Spy Kids 3D’ shipped glasses in the DVD, [and] this phenomena will only increase with time.”

Timing, though, is always an issue.

“My guess is that it is going to be a niche technology – although an important niche – for a fair amount of time,” said Electrical Engineering professor Thomas Lee. “The need to wear glasses is enough of a bother by itself to inhibit widespread adoption of the technology in the home. On top of that, home 3D equipment will be expensive, and the limited availability of 3D titles for quite some time will further constrain the rate of adoption.”

Dr. Henry Lowood, Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections, agreed.

“I am skeptical about the current push to move 3D televisions into the home,” he said. “I think there are some fundamental bottlenecks with regard to content and demand, partly because so many people have recently invested in large LCD or plasma sets, and partly because it is not entirely clear to me what people would do with these sets today.”

It seems that corporations are not interested in waiting, however. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held earlier this month in Las Vegas, 3D was the buzzword and everything from myriad types of 3D televisions to camcorders and Blu-Ray discs were introduced and promoted. ESPN has plans to broadcast the World Cup in 3D this summer, and will branch out into other sports soon after.

Yet many who have had negative experiences with 3D films in the past still remain wary of the genre in general.

“I like 3D movies less than normal movies,” said Ryan Staatz ’11. “I find the forced perspective annoying when I want to focus on other parts of the screen.”

Hillary Lin ’10 was even more unforgiving.

“I saw [Avatar] in 3D, and it gave me an eyestrain for the rest of the day,” she said. “I think 3D movies need a huge improvement before I’m going to go see any more of them.”

Brendan Weinstein ’13 felt that the 3D effects in Avatar were “less obnoxious and more subtle than in other films,” but still found the glasses an irritating detraction from the viewing experience.

So is 3D here to stay or merely a fleeting phenomenon?

“I appreciate the use of 3D technology when it actually adds something to the movie and isn’t just a flashy novelty that production companies want to show off,” said Eileen Wright ’13. “But I don’t think 3D movies or TV will appeal to most people… until they get rid of those dorky glasses.”

And, as Freshman-Sophomore College Director Dr. Andrew Dimock observed, “There was a lot more emotional truth and weight in five minutes of George Frederickson’s grief in ‘UP’ than in two-and-a-half hours of ‘Avatar.’”

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