Every time you think you’ve caught up with technology, along comes something new to replace it, and of course, this being a capitalist world, your old technology has to be replaced. Case in point: me. I used to have reel-to-reel tapes, but they were replaced by 8-tracks, then by cassettes. (At one point I had all three.) Vinyl records were replaced by CD’s, which are now obsolete because of MP3’s. (On that score, I am still in the CD era with a large collection of vinyl records as well.) BetaMax video tape format lost out to VHS which, after a brief attempt by LaserDisc and SelectaVision, lost out to DVD’s, and now they’re history thanks to BluRay. At some point we’re all going to just throw up our hands and go back to Super 8 movies (remember how that beat out old regular 8mm?) and 45’s. (And don’t get me started on the differences between Mac and PC.)
But this battle isn’t being waged just in the home entertainment field any more. If you go to the movies, you have to chose between which version of a 3-D film you want to see.
While the blue-skinned Na’vi are shooting arrows out of the screen toward the audience in the 3-D movie “Avatar,” another battle is being fought in the theater — over the goofy-looking glasses that moviegoers must wear to see the three-dimensional effects.
Four companies are fighting for bridge of the nose with three different technologies. Each of them is more advanced than the paper glasses worn to view “Bwana Devil,” regarded as the first of the commercial 3-D movies in the 1950s, but all work on the same general principle. Each eye sees a slightly different frame of the movie, but the brain puts them together and perceives depth.
About four million glasses made by RealD, the market leader, were worn during Avatar’s opening weekend in the United States. RealD’s glasses use polarized lenses and cost about 65 cents each. MasterImage 3D, another vendor, uses a similar technology.
Dolby Laboratories, the company behind theater sound systems, makes glasses that filter out different frequencies of red, green and blue. They cost about $28 each. The glasses of the third company, XpanD, use battery-powered LCD shutters that open and shut so each eye sees the appropriate frame of the movie. Those cost as much as $50 each.
Each company claims its glasses and projection-system technology is better. Because glasses using one technology are useless in a theater using a different digital projection system, the companies backing the three technologies are scrambling for the upper hand while the 3-D industry is still in its infancy.
What seems to be lost in this battle are two points. First, it’s not always the best technology that wins; it’s the one with the bigger budget for PR and greasing the studios and producers so that they will prefer one brand over the other, even if the image isn’t as good as the other. And then there are those of us with a condition known as strabismus, which means that our eyes don’t fuse the images from each eye in the brain, so we do not have 3-D vision naturally. If you’re born with it, you don’t miss 3-D because you never had it to begin with. As far as I can tell, it’s never inhibited my ability to do things that might require 3-D vision such as drive a car or even fly an airplane. (I used to blame my inability to play tennis on it, but I suspect that was an excuse for just not being very good at it. It obviously didn’t hurt Pete Sampras.) But seeing a 3-D movie with the glasses would be a lost cause; I suspect that it might even make me nauseous as my brain tries to process the image from one lens to the other.
So if I go see Avatar, it will be the 2-D version. At least the studio had the courtesy to release that version so those of us without the software upgrade can see it. I just hope they don’t decide that all movies have to be done in 3-D. I may just have to go back to my BetaMax.