So, 3D display technology is the hot home-theater topic coming off the back of CES 2010, where nearly every major manufacturer jumped on the 3D bandwagon. I also saw Avatar this weekend in larger-than-life 3D IMAX.

The question everyone asks when I mention the impending 3D renaissance remains the same: “Is this the kind of 3D where we need to wear silly glasses?” There's an intense aversion to the idea of consuming media through a tool like glasses, even though very few have experienced the latest kinds of high-end shuttered glasses coming to the home in 2010, and soon from respected brands like Oakley.

Now, consider that gamers have long been accustomed to wearing communication headsets for live gaming. And business-people have been looking silly wearing bluetooth headsets (out in public, no less!) for years now. But perhaps that's all still too much of a niche to translate to general comfort with glasses in the living room.

Fundamentally, we see 3D because our eyes are 4 inches apart. Without the comparison of the two images, we're unable to tell depth of field. I actually proved this experimentally for a science-fair project in the 6th grade with a makeshift cardboard viewing chamber, balls of clay, popsicle sticks, and my whole family as test subjects.

So to achieve 3D for consumable content, it seems we have two basic options. Present a different image to each eye, or actually create something in 3D space in front of us, so our eyes can do the same natural job they do in the real world. If glasses are a failure, it doesn't mean I think 3D is entirely dead, just that this generation of technology isn't sufficient to cross the chasm. We'll have to wait until we can actually get closer to the sci-fi vision of true holograms floating in front of us.

I'm less worried about the short term, and more wondering about the long-term implications. As I see it, one of two things will happen over the next 20 years with this technology (or whatever timeline prior to the next major tech shift, I'm guessing at least 50 years until we have decent holographic tech.)

  1. No one will want this generation of 3D, glasses will be a hassle. It will remain gimmicky at best, continue to make strides in dedicated movie theaters, for special events, and in museum documentaries. This will force the cost of content creation and consumption to remain high, and it will not gain mass market traction.

  2. We all love 3D, all content is filmed this way, and glasses become just another part of the ubiquitous gadget accessory stable we are all collecting. Wrist-watches, cell-phones, 3D-glasses. In this situation, however, I worry for the death of the TV. If we are all wearing glasses all the time, why not just cut out the middle-man and project the content right onto screens in the glasses, or even directly into the eye? Think of how many more people could come over the watch the Superbowl if they didn't all have to be sitting line-of-sight to the single shared TV screen!

(I am aware of the “glassless” options currently in development. But to me, they all seem to have very fundamental drawbacks, like the requirement of standing directly head-on and poor picture-quality, I have a hard time believing they are a superior option to glasses for home-theater lovers.)

Thought Partner: Jen Koffel