SAN FRANCISCO--When Paramount Pictures' 3D movie Beowulf debuts on November 16, the battle between an Anglo-Saxon hero and various monsters won't be the only one moviegoers will witness.
The Robert Zemeckis film also will be first major time that Real D, one of the companies that made the current possible, directly faces a newer challenger, Dolby 3D from Dolby Laboratories.
Beowulf will show using Real D's technology on 1,000 screens nationwide, Chief Executive Michael Lewis said. Dolby isn't saying yet how many will use Dolby 3D, but it's racing to install its technology as widely as possible, limited chiefly by the rate that partners manufacture its 3D glasses.
"Real D is leading the pack, since they have the widest distribution, but everyone is watching with anticipation," said Aaron Parry, chief executive of production company Main Street Pictures, which Paramount hired to evaluate the current state of stereoscopic filmmaking.
Ultimately, the race to spread 3D movie technology could hasten the day that many in the industry see as inevitable, when 3D movies escape their history as off-the-wall spectacle and become the norm. In this view, the shift to 3D is just another overhaul of the entertainment business, just like the arrival of sound and color in the last century.
"I think in 10 years you can say entertainment will feel like you're there. It will completely blur the line between the experience you took physically and the experience you took visually," said Vince Pace, whose company, Pace co-developed with James Cameron the Fusion 3D camera being used in that director's 2009 movie, Avatar.
It's no secret why the industry would be eager for a cinematic revolution. Big flat-panel displays and surround sound made home theater compelling at the same time the studios were financially stagnant. 3D versions of movies such as Chicken Little have generated more revenue than their 2D equivalents financially, and the industry expects more of the same.
"We believe that 3D has the potential to meaningfully boost growth, by allowing theaters to offer a new visual experience that we believe will drive incremental attendance and price hikes," JPMorgan analyst Barton Crockett said in a September report.
He estimated 3D movies will draw 10 percent more viewers than 2D equivalents, and each person willing to pay about $3.50 more per ticket in 2009. That means $300 million to $400 million in additional earnings for theater companies--about a fifth of the total box-office take by 2011. The number of 3D-equipped screens should jump to 7,000 by 2010, he predicted.
Most expect home theater to lag 3D in movie theaters. Even when it catches up, "The biggest problem is that 3D on a small screen is not satisfying in same way as in big screen. It is what you call an immersive experience," said Dave Schnuelle, Dolby's senior director for image technology.
Antipiracy is a side benefit. Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has observed, "Ninety percent of all piracy comes from a camcorder aimed at the screen. You can't camcorder 3D movies."
However, building a 3D future is difficult.
Inside the technology
Real D and Dolby rely on the same basic idea to give an audience the illusion of depth: show images that differ slightly in vantage point to each of a viewer's eyes. The viewer's brain will reconstruct the third dimension, just as it does in the real world.
Both companies require glasses to ensure each eye gets only the correct view; Real D uses circular polarization while Dolby uses a color-filtering technology licensed from Infitec. The light is separated into the left-eye and right-eye views at the projector, switching back and forth 144 times per second.
With the new method, "there's no eye fatigue like in the 1950s and 1970s," said Tim Partridge, Dolby's head of products and technology.
In Dolby 3D, a spinning CD-size wheel between the lamp and the digital projector alternately lets through one set of light frequencies or another--two slightly different versions of the red, green and blue primary colors for each eye. The wheel spins six times for each movie frame, with the digital projector synchronized to show the appropriate eye's image.
In contrast, Real D uses an electronic filter called a Z-screen that circularly polarizes the light two different ways after it leaves the projector, also switching back and forth six times per frame to avoid flicker. Circular polarization--a complicated transformation of light's electromagnetic properties--requires the use of a special silver screen that retains the polarization as the light reflects back toward the audience.
Another company in Korea, Masterimage, also is trying to get into the market with an approach that uses a spinning wheel in front of the projector to apply the circular polarization.