Entering the 3D Zone

Optical's New Dimension



By Marge Axelrad & Andrew Karp

NEW YORK—With the holiday shopping season fast approaching, consumers in the U.S. and throughout the world will soon be heading to the multiplex to enjoy the latest 3D Hollywood blockbusters or snapping up new 3D televisions and video games at their local electronics retailer.

But, this is just the beginning, experts say. The energy and excitement surrounding the fast-growing 3D field is growing exponentially, as entertainment companies, electronics manufacturers, and retailers—and most recently, eyeglass suppliers—race to supply content or hardware to satisfy rising consumer demand for 3D movies, sports programming and games. The next-generation of 3D, too, has implications for the health care, education and online video markets as 3D computers also come onstream, observers tell VM.

As a result, within the eyewear and vision care fields, the advent of 3D is generating interest, investigation and discussion among those who see its emergence as a solid opportunity, in the premium end of the business, for optical retailers and ECPs.

3D represents the “opportunity of a lifetime” said DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg in a keynote address that kicked off the third annual 3D Entertainment Summit, a two-day conference held in Los Angeles in September.

“With six of 2010’s top 10 grossing movies in 3D, the promise is being quickly realized,” said Bob Dowling, a veteran entertainment journalist and co-producer of the 3D Entertainment Summit.

In 2009, the release of Avatar raised 3D’s profile to unprecedented heights. The animated Hollywood blockbuster has become the highest-grossing movie of all time, with a worldwide gross of nearly $2.8 billion. Avatar’s domestic gross was $760 million, nearly 81 percent of which was from 3D, according to Box Office Mojo.com.

In the television arena, 3D is rapidly gaining traction. There are currently 21 3D channels worldwide, according to Screen Digest.com, including ESPN and DirectTV in the U.S., and Sky in the U.K. Sony, IMAX and the Discovery Channel have formed a network that will soon offer 3D content in the U.S.

Even more futuristic is the possibility of 3D TVs and projection systems that work without glasses. Although some TV suppliers are working to develop it, most agree such technology is years away from being marketable. However, researchers at the University of Arizona have developed a type of holographic image that creates a moving, 3D projection without the need for 3D glasses. It will have applications in entertainment, advertising, updatable 3D maps and entertainment, they said.

Although competing 3D formats and delivery systems are complicating the buying decision for consumers, industry analysts and observers say it won’t be long before these technical issues are sorted out, clearing the way for the 3D market to grow even more rapidly. Yet no matter which formats or technologies win out, consumers cannot experience the magic of 3D without the proper eyewear.

Electronics giants such as Sony, Panasonic and Samsung, along with some of the leading video gaming players, were the first to market 3D eyewear, offering non-prescription, active shutter glasses that provide a 3D viewing experience by synchronizing with a display and turning on or off the light entering each eye many times a second. Active shutter technologies have limitations, though. One major drawback is that they usually require the wearer to be positioned directly in front of the screen. Another is that you can only wear them at home, not in a theater. In addition, each manufacturer’s glasses can only be used with a television of the same brand. If you’re going to invite your friends over to watch a 3D

Super Bowl broadcast, you’ll need to have enough 3D glasses for everyone, and it would be better if everyone in the room can see the effects on screen. Also, some consumers are put off by the look and feel of the active shutter glasses, which are somewhat bulky and geeky-looking.

“The thing that will overcome consumers’ objections to wearing 3D glasses is good looking, appropriate glasses,” Dowling told VM.

One supplier of active shutter 3D glasses, XpandD, offers a “universal” product, the X103 model, which is designed for both theater and home use.

Recently, several eyewear companies have begun offering an alternate 3D viewing solution: passive polarized glasses in plano. These glasses, which have the advantage of working with movies, TV and video monitors, make use of circular polarized lens technology that is different from the type of polarization used in sunlenses and from the linear polarized lenses used in less sophisticated 3D eyewear.

For movies, circular polarization utilizes a projector that alternately projects right-eye frames and left-eye frames 144 times per second. It circularly polarizes these frames, clockwise for the right eye and counterclockwise for the left eye. With the use of circular polarization lens technology, viewers can tilt their head and look about the theater naturally without a disturbing loss of 3D perception. For home use, passive polarized glasses provide a 3D viewing field with 3D HDTVs that have special, polarized screens.

Active shutter 3D glasses are currently attracting the most consumer interest. But many industry observers, from among the electronics, entertainment and eyewear sectors, believe passive polarized glasses will prevail in the long run because they offer greater convenience, better style and lower pricing.

“It’s the eyeglass people who are going to be the catalyst for 3D,” Dowling said. “And they are positioned perfectly in the 3D market, if they can work with the people putting out 3D entertainment and sets.”

Although few if any optical retailers or eyecare professionals are currently dispensing 3D glasses, many are watching the emerging 3D market with interest. Some are primarily concerned about the effects on patients’ vision. According to a recent survey by the American Optometric Association, between 3 million and 9 million Americans have problems with binocular vision prohibiting them from watching 3D TV and movies.

However, other ECPs are focusing on the longer-term potential for adding a profitable new type of eyewear to their product mix. They point to the role ECPs will be able to play in discussing vision issues with patients and consumers.

“I’m really excited about this whole technology,” said Dr. Ken Kirschner, an optometrist with offices in the Chicago suburbs of Homewood and Orland Park. “I saw some new, 3D glasses at Marchon’s booth at Expo West, and thought what a great partnership we could have with our local electronics store if we agreed to put some of their 3D TVs in our shop and they could display some of our eyewear.”

After learning more about active and passive 3D glasses, though, Kirschner found that the choice of which products to carry in his dispensary is more complex than he first realized. “When people can use the glasses at home as well as the three times a year they go to a 3D movie, then that will be a great investment for me, something I can sell in my office. It might be very marketable. I’m in wait and see mode, though. I don’t want to dedicate the space and marketing yet. But when the time comes that 3D is a pretty standard feature on TV, everyone will want it, and it will be a great opportunity for a second sale.”

As the format wars continue, ECPs await another major development that could reshape the 3D landscape: the debut of prescription 3D glasses. Although optical companies offering passive polarized eyeglasses have not yet crossed this technological hurdle, Samsung Electronics, which makes active shutter 3D glasses and TVs, announced on Oct. 20 the availability of 3D prescription glasses in South Korea. A Samsung spokesperson said the company is considering a U.S. launch in 2011. And at least two of the major players, Oakley and Marchon3D, said they are actively working on prescription 3D solutions.