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Is 2009 The Year 3D Finally Catches On Big?


Now for some old-fashioned entertainment made new again. If you hadn't noticed, 3D is back. The hit movie "Up" stars a grouchy old gentlemen who goes on a journey with a little boy in 3D.

(Soundbite of movie, "Up")

Mr. EDWARD ASNER (Actor): (As Carl Fredrickson) Go on, get out of here. Go on, go.

MONTAGNE: This, after the Super Bowl ran, for the first time, commercials in 3D. Plus tween idols these days, they're reaching right out of the screen to touch their fans.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Men: Get ready for the ultimate Jonas experience.

Unidentified Man #1: Jonas Brothers, the 3D concert experience, coming through a big screen near you.

MONTAGNE: You'd be forgiven for thinking the technology went out with bobby socks and fins on cars, but the entertainment industry now sees its future in 3D. The famously competitive movie studios and consumer electronics companies have joined together to explore the next generation of the technology. We paid a visit to the lab where this research is going on: The Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California.

(Soundbite of machine)

MONTAGNE: David Wertheimer, who was the first president of Paramount Digital Entertainment, now run this lab. He says box office numbers from animation to horror movies offer plenty of encouragement.

Mr. DAVID WERTHEIMER (The Entertainment Technology Center, University of Southern California): Consumers are incredibly interested in it. They're flocking to movie theaters to see the films. If you look at things like "My Bloody Valentine" did seven times the box office on the 3D screens that it did on the 2D screens. Disney films like, "Up" that just came out did over two-to-one at the box office on the 3D screens. And what's amazing about that is that the 3D screens represented a really small number of the total overall screens.

MONTAGNE: And another amazing thing we discover at this lab, 3D goes way, way back to 1838.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: Sir Charles Wheatstone was the first person to create a devise that allowed you to separate the images that you're two eyes see and our brain takes those two different images and fuses them together and the differences between the images become depth cues.

MONTAGNE: Sir Charles called that device a stereoscope. And in the 1850s Queen Victoria gazed into one and demanded to have a stereoscope of her own.

A hundred years later, American moviegoers donned red and blue cellophane glasses.

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Man #2: I'm sure you'd all like to know something about the new entertainment miracle, third-dimension. Objects actually seem to come out of the screen, so real they almost touch you, creating the most dramatic impact that the screen has ever known.

MONTAGNE: Up until now and the advent of digital. David Wertheimer explains.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: To deliver 3D you have to line up two images simultaneously on a screen. The technology, unfortunately, back then was insufficient to do that well. And the images were quite often offset, which gave people headaches, made them motion sick, gave all kinds of problems. Well, today's technology, digital projection allows you to perfectly align the images, put them perfectly on the screen, and so we talk to consumers today and they say, I love 3D. I want more 3D. I want to go see every movie in 3D.

MONTAGNE: Are there just really some movies that will lend themselves to 3D, adventure movies and thrillers, that sort of thing? I mean you're not talking about "The Reader" here.

Mr. WERTHEIMER: You're reaction is actually not unusual, but one of the most interesting things I've seen recently was there's a company that took a scene from "Casablanca," all dialogue, and they were able to just really enhance the story-telling experience through what they call dimensionalization.

MONTAGNE: I mean seriously, do you think 3D would cross these boundaries, or again, it would be just novelties?

Mr. WERTHEIMER: My guess is that there are 20 plus films every year that for sure get made in 3D. It can't make a bad film good, but it can make a great film truly amazing.

MONTAGNE: The Entertainment Technology Center is already looking beyond the big screen and to your small screen. Here, in what they call their digital living room, they're testing out on consumers a bunch of different ways of delivering 3D to your TV screen, some of which you can buy now. Although for the moment, seeing in 3D still involves putting on funny glasses. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Morning Edition
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.