Avatar and the future of 3D

Over the weekend I went to see Avatar in 3D, it’d been meaning see it before Christmas but somehow I never got around to it.  I wish I had now though as it pretty much blew me away.  Not so much as a film – though it is a good movie – but also the depth and richness of the world James Cameron and his team have built. 


3D stuff has always interested me, when I was at Uni I basically taught myself how to use 3D Studio and Lightwave after seeing how programmes like Babylon 5 used them to such good effect.  These were quite early days for these apps, and tools for modelling particles, hair and grass were only just becoming available.  I never really did anything professionally with it, but I knocked up what I thought were some pretty good models and animations.   

I think the time I spent playing with those apps helped me appreciate Avatars technical achievements even more.  Whilst the  rendering is pretty, and motion capture as realistic as ever, it’s the sheer depth and detail that has been put into Pandora (the planet where the film is set) that really impressed me.  Whist I know there are all sort of techniques to automate the creation of grass, water etc., I’ve not seen anything quite as detailed as  landscapes, plants and animals that make up Pandora.

The fact the the film is shot and available in stereoscopic 3D just makes the experience even more believable.  I’ve seen a number of 3D movies recently, and whilst some have been gimmicky (Final Destination…), on films where the 3D is incidental to the story, like Up, Ice Age or Avatar it really works.  As with the demo’s of 3D TV football matches and racing that I saw last year, stereo viewing brings the experience closer to the viewer.  You feel more involved somehow, rather than watching a flat screen it’s more like looking through a window into these other worlds.

The quality of 3D stereo viewing has got me wondering it might mean for media outside of cinema.  With so many movies now available in 3D it’s inevitable home 3D televisions will become more common, both because people will want it, and because so much money is made from DVD/Blueray releases of films.  I think we’re already seeing that pressure on consumer electronics with a couple of 3D TV technologies fighting it out and people like Sky here in the UK committing to 3D programming.

Personally I think one of the big drivers for the consumerisation of 3D viewing will be games.  For years now consoles and games have been based around the ability to render real-time 3D environments, adding an extra layer into this to present those virtual worlds to the players in stereo 3D makes a lot of sense.  Indeed there are games already available that support this – I’ve seen at least one game on the Xbox marketplace that support 3D TV, and I’ve heard James Cameron talking about 3D versions of the Avatar game too (I’m not sure if the final versions included this though).

If 3D is available on the cinema screen and the TV screen, it’s can only be a matter of time before it will also have an impact on your computer screen.  You’d probably expect it as a matter of course to be honest.  Stereo monitors have been available for PC’s for a while now, but only really for certain games.  They’ve never become mainstream, probably because the operating systems haven’t made use of it, and it hasn’t yet become part of middleware layers like DirectX.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Avatar world for me, was how the computers, screens and even photographs that the characters use and interact with are all also in 3D.  Throughout the film to get to see these virtual 3D interfaces with elements sitting in layers and they seem like they would work.  A good real life example might be the subtitles that are used in the film itself, as it’s in 3D they sit in the foreground of the scene so it’s as if you’re looking through or around them at the scene.  It’s seems very natural.

Assuming that 3D capable screens and monitors become more common, I think there are huge opportunities in building OS’s and applications that can make use of proper stereoscopic 3D.  Tools like T3Desktop show a basic view of what could be done now, and perhaps hint at the potential of what could be possible.  I imagine even mundane tasks as typing a Word document could benefit from using 3D.  I can image a view into the document with the page in the foreground and menu’s etc. being moving in and out of view as they are needed.  Combine that sort of stereo interface with something like Microsoft’s Natal input technology and it would be a massive shift in how we use and interact with applications.

I know that MS are working on a more PC focused version Natal as Steve Bulmer spoke about it at a Windows 7 launch I attended in November.  Well, when I say speak… it was more like shout or scream.  To say he was enthusiastic would be an understatement, and I would hate to be the engineer on the end of that enthusiasm!  Apparently Natal currently works very well from a few feet away from the screen, but not so well in the 0-3 foot range that would be needed for a desktop or laptop PC solution.  It is coming though…

It’s going to be an interesting couple of years, and I can’t wait to see how these things develop.  I think 3D stereo viewing will eventually be something that everyone is used to.  It’ll take time I’m sure, but I imagine it will be like HD television or 5.1 surround sound, where the technology will move from cinema to high-end home setups, then gradually become more and more mainstream as costs lower.  I can’t wait! :)

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  1. Did you see Panasonics 3D camera from CES? Bit chunky and I’ve no idea how good the eye alignment software is so not convinced it will be headache free, but its a start!

    The clever thing about Avatar is blending real footage stereoscopic action with Stereoscopic data from the 3D models. Generating the model data is pretty easy so I’m guessing that the live data was used to generate the camera position info for the model. Getting this 100% right will be crucial to avoid mass headaches!

    I wonder how long it is before the live action cameras are actually recording in voxels?

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