Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Truly Trivial: When was the first 3D television broadcast, and what program was shown?

Pocket stereoscope from Zeiss with original te...Image via Wikipedia
For those of us fortunate enough to attend the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it has become glaring apparent that every major television manufacturer is desperate to shove 3D TV down our throats -- whether the consumer likes it or not. If you're among the millions of movie-goers (or Golden Globes judges) that saw James Cameron's Avatar, you know that Hollywood has also suddenly decided that 3D is the technology that will once again get consumers lining up at cinemas rather than queuing up on bittorrent. Piling on, ESPN and the Discovery Channel are committed to creating 3D HD television channels this year, and pretty much every major PC video game has a 3D expansion or sequel in the works (you couldn't throw a rock at CES without hitting a 3D version of Batman: Arkham Asylum).

Hope you like wearing dorky 3D glasses for several hours a day.

What's lost in all this sudden 3D hoopla is that 3D photography, motion pictures and television have been around for decades and that, while each has enjoyed a brief spark of popularity, the public has always swung back to familiar, comfortable two-dimensional media as its preferred viewing format. Some of this has been due to limitations in technology, some of it has been due to the paucity of good 3D content, but for this author's money the problem that killed 3D in the past remains the one that neither Silicon Valley nor Tinseltown have yet solved -- nobody wants to wear 3D glasses to watch TV. (Yes, there are 3D screens that don't require glasses, but those models demand a direct viewing angle; step a few degrees left or right of center and the image blurs, which is equally if not more inconvenient.)

Three-dimensional stereoscope photography dates back at least to the 1840s with Charles Wheatstone and David Brewster inaugurating the technology. A 3D photograph of Queen Victoria was displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851. In 1855 the Kinematoscope 3D movie camera was produced, and by 1935 3D films started appearing in theaters. This technology didn't achieve a major commercial groundswell until the 1950s when classic films like Bwana Devil and the original House of Wax delighted movie-going audiences. But by the 1960s, the insatiable craze for 3D films had died out, partly because moviehouses couldn't afford, maintain, or properly operate the dual-projector systems required to show the films, and partly because the public fad of 3D movies had passed on.

That same fad reached television in the 1990s, when major networks offered special 3D episodes of primetime television programs -- including a particularly memorable episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun, "Nightmare on Dick Street" -- but again the craze died out by the end of the decade. This time, the passing couldn't be laid at the feet of the technology, as 3D TV was proven feasible over forty years earlier.

So, when was the first 3D television broadcast, and what program was shown?

On April 29, 1953, Los Angeles television station KECA broadcast an episode of the sci-fi program Space Patrol in 3D. The event was a technology demonstration for the 31st annual National Television and Radio Broadcasters convention, which was held in LA that week. Viewers were required to wear special 3D glasses created by Polaroid; otherwise, the show appeared as an indistinct blur.

The broadcasters were so enamored with the 3D television efforts and its potential to cash in the 3D movie craze for the small screen that no major 3D TV efforts were undertaken for almost 30 years. While Japan made some attempts at 3D animation for TV in the intervening decades, live action 3D TV was all but abandoned until the 1980s and didn't gain any serious traction until the 1990s, and then only as special events (such as the Rose Bowl or the Super Bowl) because broadcasters had to find some way to get 3D glasses into the hands of viewers. This usually involved a sponsorship partner like Doritos or TV Guide that produced a hard good with which the 3D specs could be packaged.

Nowadays, manufacturers and broadcasters are hoping to make (not inexpensive) 3D glasses a standard component of the average consumer's household technology kit, as indispensable as earbuds if not remote controls. If they're successful, it could redefine viewing habits and the aesthetic boundaries of consumer entertainment for years to come. But if 3D TV and film follow the same brief boom-and-bust cycle that have defined them thus far, the latest generation of 3D TV tech will be consigned the archives of the Truly Trivial.