Is Avatar the key to the home 3D revolution?

As James Cameron lends the Panasonic 3D plasma TV and Blu-ray player his support, we wonder if his movie can change everything the way Blu-ray didn't...

James Cameron voting 3D with Avatar - and the huge and high-priced Panasonic set-up he's pushing.

There’s a sad scene towards the end of Annie Hall where Woody Allen tries to recreate a spontaneous ‘bonding moment’ from a previous relationship  – involving the escape of some lobsters – with his new date….who just looks on bemused as Allen waits in vain for the magic to strike a second time.

It seems that Hollywood too is ready to let loose its lobsters upon us once again, looking for a repeat of the moment when DVD technology broke through consumer trepidation with the advent of The Matrix. And these will be 3D lobsters, so it’s bound to be better, right?

But will we laugh? Will we be beguiled? Will we part with any more cold hard cash for Blu-ray 3D than we did for vanilla Blu-ray? Arguably we first need to become so entranced with 3D that we want to take it home at alll…

Already ten cinemas a week in the UK are being converted to accommodate 3D projection, principally because of the key Christmas releases Avatar and A Christmas Carol. But Avatar director James Cameron is determined, it seems, to addict us to 3D, even in our own homes. On Monday it was announced that Cameron is partnering with Panasonic to push their new 103-inch Plasma HDTV and Blu-ray Disc Player in association with the post-theatrical release of his new flick in HD-3D.

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Avatar may well end up being the first such disc on the market – it will not only require a new and very expensive dedicated 3D screen, but a new and very expensive type of Blu-ray player.

The Panasonic screen in question is mooted as a proof-of-concept showcase whose job it will be to evangelise home Blu-ray 3D for lesser and more affordable versions of itself, and the company has been promoting the screen and new format with a 3-D Blu-ray version of Disney’s Up.

Though I’ve not seen a demonstration, I can imagine it is pretty damn impressive; nothing looks better in HD than CGI animation, and I remember well a stunning Blu-ray expo presentation of Ice Age on a 60-inch plasma TV three years ago. If the 3D is working (hopefully with fewer cerebral aneurisms than the IMAX Avatar previews induced), it must be a formidable consumer temptation.

As opposed to the anaglyph 3-D technology that brought complaints of indistinct colour in the 3D releases of Jonas Bros: The 3-D Concert Experience and Coraline, the new Blu-ray 3D method delivers a complete and separately-processed 1920 x 1080 HD image to each eye, effectively halving the capacity of a standard Blu-ray disc and doubling the processor overhead (and presumably the power consumption) of the player itself.

The 103-inch plasma TV goes “well beyond conventional 3D”, says Panasonic Executive Vice President Bob Perry. “Plasma is currently the only TV capable of delivering a 3D Full HD experience due in great part to its ability to refresh at a speed which enables multiple image display without loss of resolution. The integration of Hollywood’s 3D content with Panasonic’s industry leading Plasma, Blu-ray and 3D FHD technologies deliver a truly immersive experience which will elevate home entertainment to a whole new level of excitement.  You will no longer just be watching a movie, you’ll be experiencing the realism of Hollywood film.”

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Of course the experience requires the traditional shutter-glasses familiar to gamers who have experimented with 3D titles and technology over the years, and these will interleave the two totally separate video-tracks to provide the 3D experience. Effectively one will be viewing twice the volume of HD information with respect to a standard Blu-ray.

This technology was previewed initially at the International Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of year, but it’s only now gaining commercial context as the publicity machine for Avatar revs up.

In terms of Hollywood haggling with its public for a new and huge influx of cash, the dynamics of the push for 3D are pretty uncompromising: since we didn’t ‘bite’ adequately for the pretty expensive Blu-ray revolution, perhaps we will for the even more expensive Blu-ray 3D experience.

Hollywood still seems hurt that we didn’t all go out and buy Blu-ray players and the large, high-quality HD screens that make them worth having. We failed to repeat the DVD phenomenon with Blu-ray for a number of reasons…

– Firstly, the economy tanked.

– Secondly, the much-mooted ‘affordable and reliable’ Blu-ray player never came onto the market, leaving the expensive PS3 the only fairly reliable model, and movie-lovers reluctant to pay for gaming tech they didn’t want.

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– Thirdly, the price of Blu-ray discs stayed at a fairly prohibitive level at exactly the same time as the price of DVDs seemed to take yet another glorious and affordable tumble.

– Finally, the differential in quality between DVD and HD formats was perceived to be nothing like the order of magnitude between VHS and DVD.

And additionally, the ‘viral’ factor was missing. There’s a tipping point in the dissemination of new technology where you simply can’t avoid it any more; there’s too much talk in the office and too many of your friends have ‘it’. Blu-ray never achieved this crucial saturation.

And it needed it far more than other technologies: you can watch an iPhone being demonstrated on a crappy 14-inch TV and get what the appeal is, but with HD, you need to be in front of the tech itself. More consumers have brought large plasma screens than Blu-ray players, and in an ideal world the one should have led to the other. But Blu-ray’s cause wasn’t helped in the UK by the unreliability and channel-squeezing of British HD broadcasting. It’s just not a good advert for the medium, but it’s the only practical advert Blu-ray had for the semi-converted.

We didn’t buy in large enough numbers, so prices didn’t fall; prices didn’t fall because we didn’t buy and we didn’t provide the economies-of-scale that let prices fall. No-one wanted to go first. Blu-ray seemed like DVD 2: The Revenge – many of us had spent years converting our film collections to DVD, and building up our film libraries, and most of us felt that we shouldn’t be asked to donate to the Hollywood Cocaine Fund again quite so soon for the same material at a higher resolution.

So in the midst of  a struggling economy, it will be interesting to see if we’ll be willing to buy consumer players and screens that are likely to prove twice as expensive as the ones that were already too expensive for many – if not – most of us.

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One immediately assumes that Avatar has its work cut out for it. But arguably its work is in fact drawing to a close…

Already consumers are being asked to fund the theatrical 3D conversions with higher ticket prices, and it’s a safe bet that the prices won’t fall once the costs are recouped. Even if Avatar flops (and I’ll be damned if it could possibly be worse than the appalling web/money-slinger Spider-Man 3), it leaves new infrastructure behind it that new productions can take advantage of, along with the pioneering 35mm 3D movie-cameras that were developed for Avatar.

A box-office disaster for Cameron would doubtless prove an ill-omen for the 103-inch Panasonic 3D screen and player, but that doesn’t mean that Panasonic’s tech won’t get a second bite of the cherry at a later time. By the time Avatar is in theatres, it will have won half of Hollywood’s battle to repeat the DVD revolution and give it half a chance to resell its back-catalogue again and add value to its new output.

Me? I personally believe that this particular offensive on the consumer purse will be viewed in terms of Hollywood history much as that old B&W ‘thumping umbrella plane’ is viewed in terms of aviation history – we just don’t seem to have made the technological breakthroughs needed yet to get 3D HD off the ground. We can neither adequately reduce the price nor the inconvenience, and one of them needs addressing to break this technology out of the purview of the elite early adopters.

The glasses, as ever, are a huge issue. They remove – or at least diminish – what social aspect there is to watching movies in one’s own home, and I’m damned if I ever did put a pair on (and I first tried 3D movies out in 1978) that wasn’t capable of causing some kind of cerebral or ocular discomfort, given the wrong circumstances.

It’s been mentioned that Cameron, who worked very closely with Panasonic during the making of Avatar, has taken great care to ensure that all the screens in his film are themselves depicted as 3D monitors – a nice bit of subliminal suggestion, but it’s rather hamstrung both by the ‘sci-fi’ context and by the fact that the characters in the film don’t have to wear hokey glasses to enjoy all that 3D goodness.

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Or sell a kidney for the privilege. Blu-ray 3D is likely to cost a fortune and therefore become even more ‘mythical’ and unseen as a consumer experience than vanilla Blu-ray. Prices of the Avatar 3D Blu-ray will be announced after the film has finished its theatrical run, but I’m guessing that even if Cameron and Fox take a 100% loss on the cost, it can only end up at the same price as a typical zero-day Blu-ray release: ‘too much’, in consumer terms.

Is 3D worth it? Not from what I have seen of Avatar in IMAX 3D. It’s great fun when it isn’t fusing your optic nerve, and I guess that’s something, but one quickly gets used to it and resumes a normal level of critical faculty for whether a film is any good or not.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and everything that came before 3D movies will become known as ‘flatties’. But I would argue not only that this technological leap is not remotely on a par with the transition from silent to sound films, but that the leap itself has a fair way to go yet, both in terms of verisimilitude and ease-of-use.

I’d be amused to watch the 3D re-render of Toy Story on Blu-ray 3D, as well as the various other efforts that are taking place to add a new dimension to non-3D movies from Hollywood’s catalogue. I guess I would even re-buy my collection if the right format came along at the right price. But even if Avatar topples Titanic as Cameron’s biggest grosser, there’s currently little reason to believe that another affordable home-cinema evolution is coming this Christmas or anytime soon.