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The Paleofuturist

3DTV: The future that never was

About the author

Matt is a writer, retrofuturist and time capsule hunter who lives in Los Angeles. He writes Smithsonian magazine's Paleofuture blog and is a contributing editor at The Futurist magazine.

The future of 3D TV as perceived in the past

The future of 3D TV as perceived in the past

Just ten years after the introduction of television to the world, it promised to jump into 3D. So why have decades of attempts to launch 3DTV tried and failed?

Prediction is a tricky art. Those that dare peer into the future often find themselves ridiculed by those with the benefit of hindsight. But without individuals who are willing to stick their neck out, we would not have such a rich record of the hopes and fears of previous generations.

These forward-looking archives – in newspapers, magazines and films – have led to a new kind of historian – the palaeofuturist. And from where we sit now, we can sift through this scrapheap of lost futures and try to make sense of the present.

Take 3D television (3DTV). At last month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas – the annual convention where consumer technology companies come to show off their future wares – the floor was buzzing about the next great technological hope: the TV. But of course, tomorrow’s TV is voice-activated, web-connected and 3D. If that last part sounds familiar, it might be because the big television manufacturers were all banking on 3DTV as the saviour of their stagnant industry at last year’s CES, and the one before that and… well you get the picture. But this is not a recent phenomenon. We have heard these promises about the 3D future of TV repeated time and again throughout the 20th Century.

In the 1930s, for example, smokers were treated to a glimpse of this future. Stephen Mitchell and Son, a cigarette manufacturer in Glasgow, Scotland, produced promotional cards for their cigarette packs called The World of Tomorrow. The black and white picture cards featured fantastical illustrated predictions of the future: robots, spacesuits and streamlined vehicles of all types.

There is also one of a 3DTV. The card shows a gigantic television image from the 1936 film Things to Come. The card proclaimed that one day, television images would be transmitted, as if by magic, in colour and three dimensions.

Coming less than a decade after the introduction of broadcast television, it was a big claim. But the makers of the cards had reason to be confident that this technology was just around the corner.

In the mid-1920s, John L Baird of Scotland tinkered with the transmission of live television images, making the first public demonstration of the medium in January 1926. His “radio movies” were shown on his “televisor”, as the Oakland Tribune called it, and only two years later he was already tinkering with “stereoscopic”, or 3D, television.

Baird’s experiments, however crude, proved successful. But ultimately his 3D television had no commercial potential, because it could be viewed by only one person at a time standing directly in front of the screen. Not great for a social activity.

But Baird was not the only one tinkering with 3DTV. In 1931, Modern Mechanics magazine ran Television in Three Dimensions, a profile of a radio engineer in Connecticut named Leslie Gould. The piece claimed that Gould had developed a way to televise 3D images using neon tubes, a revolving shutter drum and a TV receiver. History shows that his ideas did not take off either.

The lack of 3D did little to hamper the take-up of television sets. A headline from 1953 declared that the city of Chicago now had more television sets than bathtubs.

This rapid emergence of TV in the 1950s was seen as a threat by the movie industry, since it allowed people to be entertained in the comfort of their own homes. They needed a new weapon to lure people back, and they too turned to 3D. The release of Bwana Devil in 3D in 1952 sparked a craze, and it was said to be “Hollywood’s answer to television”.

But not long afterwards, the fightback began. A 1953 edition of Ohio’s Marysville Journal-Tribune ran a story about the debut of 3DTV: “Three dimensional television, described as television’s answer to Hollywood’s answer to television, makes its debut today at a press conference.” Later that year, the first experimental 3DTV broadcast was attempted on the Los Angeles channel KECA with a science fiction programme called Space Patrol.

Yet in the late 1950s and early 1960s, 3DTV was still just around the corner. The beautifully illustrated Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think ran in newspapers across the United States and Canada.

At its peak, the strip reached 19 million newspaper readers and is one of the great techno-utopian artifacts of the post-war era. The 21 December 1958 edition of the strip was titled Pop-Out TV Programs and was based on an idea by no less than the father of modern science fiction, Hugo Gernsback. The wildly imaginative inventor and TV pioneer – who is often mistakenly said to have coined the word television – claimed these Pop Out TV Programs would not only make television three dimensional, but would complete the illusion with real-life odours.

Even after the public had grown weary of 3D cinema and the craze had largely fizzled out by the mid 1950s, a few still had their eye on pushing the televised world into 3D. A 1958 article in the Daily Telegram of Columbus, Nebraska described one such process:

Unlike the 3-D movie process that blossomed briefly, “depthagraph” does not utilize polarization to fuse a double image. Viewers wearing special glasses see the depth dimension. Those without glasses continue to receive a clear, two-dimensional picture. In TV patois, the system is completely compatible.

“Depthagrap”’ was developed by ex-actor William Free who predicts future TV shows will be strictly 3-D.

“At first, kiddie shows and commercials will take advantage of my process,” Free said. “Then, when there are 100 million pairs of glasses in the homes, dramatic shows, Westerns and musicals will move into 3D.”

But those pairs of glasses, as it turns out here in the futuristic world of 2012, would not work on competing 3DTV sets. Just as the format wars have historically frustrated consumers during the introduction of a new technology – think Blu-ray versus HD-DVD or VHS v Betamax video formats – the use of glasses means that many 3DTVs do not play nicely with each other. Want to invite your friend over to watch the big game? Tell him to leave his Panasonic 3D glasses at home, because they will not work very well with your Sony 3DTV.

The coming decades saw fewer futurist predictions for 3DTV, with most of the home entertainment market enamoured with the emergence of home video. It was not until the 1990s, with the home movie market firmly established, that HDTV and 3DTV were again taken seriously as the next step in the evolution of television.

James Carnes, president of research outfit the David Sarnoff Research Center, predicted that 3D television could again become a reality by 2005 and reach a million viewers by 2010. That did not come to pass, but Carnes did correctly predict that the popularity of 3DTV would not outpace the amount of quality programming offered. Today there is a serious lack of programming, with just a handful of channels available in 3D for these hi-tech sets. No-one seems to know if 3DTV usage will simply level off after being taken up by early adopters, never to become a mainstream staple of home entertainment.

Ultimately, the big question consumers seem to be asking of 3DTV is simply “why would I want to see this in 3D?” And – with rare exceptions – there seems to be no good answer.

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