Just How Likely Is James Cameron’s ‘3D Without the Glasses’ Idea?

November 1, 2016

11:20 am

James Cameron’s film Avatar, arguably the most impressively 3D film ever made, has been in film franchise hell ever since it came out wayyy back in 2009. The big problem? The film’s plot kinda sucked, and no one’s interested in the sequels unless they are even more innovative than the original. The technology is still developing, and now Cameron has his loftiest goal yet: He wants a 3D film people can see in theaters without wearing those annoying glasses.

Here’s the background on his “3D without the glasses” idea, why it could work, and why it probably won’t.

James Cameron Says “We’ll Get There.”

Speaking at a black tie gala for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers on Friday night, Cameron had this to say:

“I’m going to push. Not only for better tools, workflow, high dynamic range and high frame rates — the things we are working toward. I’m still very bullish on 3D, but we need brighter projection, and ultimately I think it can happen — with no glasses. We’ll get there.”

While he doesn’t say that the three planned sequels to Avatar will offer 3D without the glasses, it’s obvious that he wishes they could. And since Cameron is known for pushing every technical boundary he can find — from the special effects of Terminator to the deep-sea diving needed for the Abyss — everyone is wondering if he can actually make it happen.

The Good News: We Potentially Can Get There

TVs have been trying this exact trick for years, with little success. Toshiba’s glasses-free HDTV attempt didn’t work well, but a demo from StreamTV Networks in January 2016 seems to have met with success. Here’s Mashable’s report on the differennt approaches each one used:

“[StreamTV Networks CEO Mathu Rajan] told Mashable that, in the case of Toshiba, they used head tracking technology to create its 3D imagery, which meant it was difficult for multiple people in different spots to see quality 3D. StreamTV Networks, by contrast, uses light fields and defractive indexes, something Rajan described to us as ‘like early stages of hologram technologies.’ As a result, there is no tracking and there are no viewing angles or zones.”

Eye-tracking might work okay for five friends in a living room, but not for an entire theater audience. Even if it did work, you’d need cameras in the theater to track everyone’s eyes.

The Bad News: It’s Really Far Away

Here’s one Reddit user breaking down the problems with the only tech that could offer anyone 3D without the glasses, laser projection. The main problem is how long it would take to modify theaters enough for even a limited release:

“We are nowhere close to large scale cinema 3D without glasses. Laser projection system which have been ‘A year or two away’ for the last 6 years are just starting to roll out in very large, very expensive 6 laser projection systems that require external refrigeration units and constant tweaking and maintenance to keep running. The single laser retrofit systems that will allow for widespread adoption of laser systems by installing them in the existing digital projectors we still paying the lease on will be at least another ‘one to two years’.

Take High Frame Rate (HFR) for instance: […] They do it for 3D as each frame for each eye is flashed 3 times to reduce image stuttering and eye fatigue. The first nationwide rollout of 2k digital systems was 2005, it was 2011 before Cameron gave the first public demo of HFR at Cinemacon using a Frakensteinian custom server and projector solution. It took projector manufacturers and service technicians the next year and a half of non stop work installing new hardware and performing firmware and software upgrades in order for a limited number of screens to be available for HFR when the Hobbit opened.”

So how likely are we to ever see an Avatar film in 3D without the glasses?

“I would say at best the chances of seeing an Avatar film with glasses free 3D in cinemas would be for the last one in a very select number of theatres, and even then I’d say that’s a very lofty goal.”

Glasses-free 3D is unlikely to ever make the leap to mainstream theaters, but if it does, expect ticket prices to bump up higher than ever.

Image: Wikimedia

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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