The MIRACLE of the Age! A LION in your lap! A LOVER in your arms!” shouted the cinema poster for Bwana Devil.

bwana-devil.jpgWhile it wasn’t such a hit with the critics, this 1952 United Artists film raked in the moviegoers. Why? It marked the beginning of something special – the age of three-dimensional cinema. As the film was about a pair of rogue lions that terrorised the construction of the Uganda Railway, the directors had a chance to use something extra special to make the lions literally leap from screen and onto the laps of startled moviegoers. They found this in a technique called ‘Natural Vision 3-D’. Essentially, this consisted of filming and superimposing two slightly offset images that required the use of special glasses (with a red and a green lens), to trick viewers’ brains into seeing a single 3-D version. Bwana Devil was a big success and sparked a boom in 3-D cinema.

Natural Vision 3-D was introduced because, at the time, box office attendance was in serious trouble – by 1950 it had plummeted by nearly half of what it was two years before. And the reason? The introduction of television.

Natural Vision wasn’t the only eye candy being used to lure audiences away from their living rooms. Other cinema sweeteners included Cinerama, which was a huge ‘IMAX-style’ widescreen experience consisting of a gigantic 146 degree curved (and louvered) screen, three synchronised projectors and seven-channel discrete audio. Although stunning, Cinerama was doomed because it needed costly equipment and large custom-built theatres.

Also released in the early-’50s was CinemaScope. Like Cinerama, this featured a widescreen experience about twice the width of conventional cinemas. However, CinemaScope used anamorphic lenses that enabled a widescreen image to be filmed by a single camera and presented by a single projector (CinemaScope’s anamorphic aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is still used by the movie industry today.) CinemaScope also used a less expensive rectangular flat screen, rather than a curved one.

It seems that we’ve come full circle since the ‘realism’ boom back in the 1950s. Today’s technologies are poised to bring the 3-D experience back to the living room. This year, Samsung launched its ‘3D-ready’ PAVV Cannes 42 and 50 inch plasma TVs. Apart from regular content, viewers are able to watch movies and play games in 3-D, with the addition of special 3-D glasses. At the moment, the 3-D content needs to be fed to the TV by special software running on a computer but Samsung has partnered with Electronic Arts to produce future 3-D games, and is in talks with movie studios about 3-D movies.

iZ3D-monitor.jpgWhat’s really exciting about 3-D home entertainment is that engineers are moving ever closer to the Holy Grail – holographic TV. Imagine watching a sporting event on your huge wall screen, and suddenly the action spreads out from the screen and into your living room where you can watch the action at any angle, without wearing 3-D glasses.

An incredible amount of detail is needed to depict a moving hologram, and this had, until recently, prevented the technology from progressing beyond a static image. Recent breakthroughs at the University of Arizona’s Optical Sciences Department, however, have seen the development of a rewritable and updateable holographic system.

Essentially the system works like this: the hologram of a 3-D image is recorded in a special high-tech polymer with a sheet of laser light and a ‘writing device’ called a spatial light modulator. A weak laser is focused on a TV screen made of the same polymer. Waves of light reflected by the screen create a sort of ‘signature’ of the original image. This guides the laser to build up a hologram, which is projected out from the polymer TV screen, similar to the way Princess Leia was projected from R2-D2 in ‘Star Wars’. The computer then quickly updates the polymer screen’s image to create the impression of motion, without the need for special glasses. Researchers are now working on a three-colour version that can create a holographic image about the size of a computer screen.

Çommercial holographic TV is probably ten years away, though some scientists believe that it may be ready in as early as five. At the very least, this allows movie studios time to prepare a new lure for attracting audiences away from the holograms in their living rooms, and back to the cinema.

Read more about the (near) future of 3D entertainment

3D TV – coming soon? looks at how 3D images are produced on screen, and what companies like Philips, and videogame makers, are working on right now.