Watching movies and television in the third dimension may seem like a thing of yesterday. However, stereoscopic technology, or the technique of creating a third dimension, is ancient. The technology was discovered in 1838 by Charles Wheatstone. In his research, Wheatstone described 3D as the observation that two different images are projected on the eye’s retinas when one object is seen.

Even though he invented the first device to recreate 3D images, Wheatstone was not the first person to look at the possibility of this technology. In the third century BC, Euclid discovered that the right and left eyes view an image slightly differently.

The first glimpse of 3D motion occurred between 1850 and 1860 when various people started combining machines that would display a series of images quickly and stereoscopic photography to create a moving 3D image. Louis Ducos du Hauron, a French scientist, patented the anaglyph in 1891. This was a method of reproducing an image in 3D by separating it into two different color channels and then wearing 3D glasses with the same colors on opposite eyes.

In the same year, another method to create 3D was proposed by John Anderton. His system split an image into two different light paths using polarization techniques and then diverted a separate image on each eye. Unlike the anaglyph, the polarization technique did not lose any color information since the images retained their original color spectrum. However, the photos lost luminance, and for this reason, a silver screen was necessary to reflect more light hence compensating for the lost brightness.

2D motion pictures took off in 1896 and 1897, and after a lot of experimenting, creative film formats like framing and cut started becoming evident by 1910. The first 3D film was presented by early filmmakers Auguste and Louis Lumiere in 1903. The film was called L’Arrivee du Train, which left the audiences panicked and thrilled when a locomotive train appeared to crash into them.

Early 3D Films

The Power of Love was the first 3D feature film released in 1922 and exhibited in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel Theater. The film was shown using red/green glasses and was also the first 3D film to use anaglyph glasses and dual strip projection. The film was made with a custom-made camera that incorporated two movies in one camera body.

William Van Doren Kelley, in the same year, designed his camera rig based on the Prizma color system he invented in 1913. The Prizma 3D color system worked by placing filters over lenses to capture two different color channels.

In late 1922, Teleview technology was unveiled. The first alternate-frame 3D projection system periodically blocked the left and right eyes in sync, allowing one to see two separate images. No one understood the working of the teleview theory in practice and how it would allow for film viewing in a cinema until Laurens Hammond.

Laurens Hammond designed a two projector system where the left film was in the left projector and vice versa. The Man From M.A.R.S. was the only film produced using this method. The technology did not catch on, not because of the image, but because of the viewing apparatus needed.

In 1929, Edwin H. Land made one of the most crucial breakthroughs in 3D technology. He invented using images together with polarized lenses to create stereo vision. His invention was first used at the behest of Clarence Kennedy, an art history instructor at Smith College, to project sculpture images to students.

The first polarized 3D film to be released was Beggars Wedding in Italy in 1936. It was the first stereoscopic feature to include sound and was filmed using polarized technology. In Tune With Tomorrow, released in 1939, was the first American film to feature polarized filters.

3D films continued to be made between 1939 and 1952. However, the onset of the second world war and the Great Depression made it expensive to make the movies, hence restricting the industry and leading to a reduced 3D film output.

3D’s First Golden Age

The years between 1950 and 1960 were the so-called first golden age of 3D technology. It hit its first mainstream explosion when dozens of 3D films hit the screens. 3D was a way for the film industry to offer viewers something extra and make them return.

Bwana Devil was the first of the many stereoscopic films to follow in the next few years. It was released in 1952 as the first color 3D film. Combining color and 3D was used to attract more viewers for 3D films. The year between 1950 and 1955 recorded the highest number of 3D movies being produced since the birth of this technology. This record was broken starting in 2009 and onwards.

Around 1955, towards the end of the first golden age, the excitement with 3D was getting lost. The main reason for this was that the film had to be shown on two reels simultaneously for it to be seen in 3D.

Rising Again Into Life

Between 1960 and 2000, 3D started to become alive and active again sporadically. This began with the invention of a single strip 3D format in the late 1960s. This advancement initiated a revival as the projectors would no longer cause eye strain and headaches by going out of sync.

The first version of this 3D format was Space Vision 3D, which worked over and under. The frame was split horizontally into two during playback and then separated using polarized glasses and a prism. However, the Space Vision 3D format had significant drawbacks. The design of the cameras required to film in this format was only compatible with the Bernier lens. The focal length of the Bernier optic was fixed and could not be varied but could be altered. Therefore, this restricted creative filmmaking options and was superseded by another format called Stereovision.

This format was similar to the first one as it would split the frame into two, but it would break vertically other than horizontally, and the images were placed side by side. The edges were then stretched back to their original size through an anamorphic lens. The format also used Land’s polarizing method.

The Stewardesses of 1969 was the first film made using this method. The film grossed $26M at the cinema, and it only cost $100,000 to make. This considerable profit margin attracted many studios, making 3D an exciting prospect again. However, the films were still being edited using old techniques making the manipulation of movies quite tricky. Therefore, filmmakers lacked control over the entire filmmaking process, which made 3D less appealing.

New Technologies

3D movies pulled back once again, but as always, a few individuals were researching methods of making 3D appealing to filmmakers by making it visually impressive and cheaper. In the mid-’80s, I.M.A.X. became one of the greatest 3D films and filmmaking proponents. I.M.A.X. took steps to ensure the film reels were kept in sync to ensure their viewers did not suffer too many of the headaches or eye strains associated with 3D movies.

Disney continued to experiment in 3D filming with Captain Eo in 1986. Though incredibly expensive to produce, the film gave the audience a taste of 3D new technology. Disney’s theater offered fog effects, laser lights, and hydraulic chairs to accompany the movie, and for this reason, the film was referred to as a 4D film.

Another excellent revolution in 3D technology came with the invention of the I.M.A.X. 3D format, first seen at the World’s Fair in Vancouver, Canada, in 1986. The transitions of this film made it the first 3D movie to use polarized lenses instead of the standard anaglyph glasses. With this kind of lens, an image is beamed toward the viewers and refracted through 3D glasses. Each eye would receive the image slightly differently, but the brain will combine the two similar and unique images to create a 3D image.

The advantage of polarized lenses is that viewers would watch a movie from varying angles at once without quality distortion. Digitization of visual effects and post-processing gave 3D filming an efflux in the 1990s. Complete digitization, however, from glass to glass, that is, from the camera’s lens to the projector’s lens, gave the technological push it needed to bloom.

The Second Golden Age

The emergence of digital cameras and animation technology in 2001 contributed to the democratization of stereoscopic production and screening. This was followed by the release of Ghost of the Abyss by James Cameron in 2003. This was the first full-length 3D film made using digital cameras with high definition, the reality camera system. With the new digital cameras, old 3D film techniques would no longer restrict the process, and everything could be done digitally from the start to the end.

Robert Zemeckis’s 2004 animated film Polar Express was the next groundbreaking and most significant turning point for 3D filming, the film that was shown in I.M.A.X. theaters. The film was released in 2D and 3D format, and the 3D took more money from cinemas, 14 times more than the 2D cinemas. Since the animated Polar Express film of 2004, 3D digital films have become more eminent.

New Competing Technologies

Currently, a large proportion of conventional cinemas can display digital 3D films. Most of them have switched to digital, and I.M.A.X. is not the only cinema that can show movies in 3D. Real-D and Dolby-3D are other leading distributors. They all abandoned the typical anaglyph glasses for polarized lenses. This is because the advent of digital filming made post-production work easy. 

The Dolby-3D cinema also provides a big-screen experience like I.M.A.X. I.M.A.X. typically has more seats and much bigger screens than the Dolby cinema. However, Dolby is known for having a more precise and sharper image along with plenty of rumble and reclining seats. Real-D seems to have taken over the world of 3D-movies as default. Almost all films in 3D use Real-D technology that offers an excellent experience through the film as the technology accommodates head-turning. I.M.A.X. also uses this technology but is made with much larger screens in consideration.

3D Hits Its 3rd Era

3D has hit its mainstream popularity in the third era, but no crash is expected this time, like in the 50s and 80s. Advancements in technologies and massive cinema returns justify upgrading theaters with 3D cable projectors. Movie lovers can now look forward to more new 3D-movies in the coming years since it is also simple to convert 2D movies to 3D in post-production.

The next edge of 3D-movies is expected to be the home market. Some releases of home videos have included anaglyph glasses. Recently consumers could purchase actual 3D-capable televisions that offer a 3D model by using a pair of battery-powered LCD shutter lenses. The lenses differ from polarized lenses as they contain liquid crystal displays that accompany the video display to allow light through at specific intervals. The lenses can be kept in sync through a wireless signal or a cable. The shutter lenses also tend to be more expensive than polarized lenses.

In 2010 manufacturers like LG, Phillips, and Sony began producing 3D-ready HDTVs. Besides the T.V.s, there are also 3D-capable Blu-ray players, including older players like Playstation 3, through a firmware upgrade, will be able to display 3D Blu-ray discs automatically. Despite the advancement in technology, 3D remains a relatively expensive and imperfect technology. In fact, 3D film versions are not rich or sharp in color compared to 2D films.

The polarized lenses used in 3D lower peripheral vision, leaving viewers focused only on the center of the screen. We hope that the newer 3D technologies will take care of these imperfections. Other than this improvement, manufacturers are also dedicated to breaking the following significant barriers in 3D-technology. Autostereoscopic displays are being designed to eliminate the need for 3D glasses.

Currently, this technology is only possible for smaller devices like cell phones, as the autostereoscopic effect is not possible for larger devices since the viewer must view the image from a close and constant angle. With the current rate of advancing technology, soon we will be watching movies in 3D without glasses. What a great experience!

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