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Take Your Brain To Another Dimension

Posted on Thursday November 4, 2010, 12:18 by James Dyer in Empire States
Take Your Brain To Another Dimension

Since Avatar crashed onto screens last year, 3D has been the buzzword of choice for filmmakers and cinemagoers alike. Like it or loathe it, the entertainment landscape has changed and titles now come to us, more often than not, in three eye-popping dimensions. Whether you buy into it largely boils down to whether increased immersion in a movie justifies the extra hit to your wallet – that and looking like an Elvis Costello caricature for ninety-odd minutes – but while a lot has been said for and against the rise of 3D in cinemas, the more pressing question, from my point of view, is whether this technology has a place in the home. So, in the interests of science, I set out to embrace this new wave of home entertainment technology and see if it's really worth turning your living room into a budget IMAX.

Surprisingly, the physical upgrade to 3D home cinema nirvana is a relatively painless one. On the one hand, you do need an array of 3D-capable kit, but on the other you probably already have half of it already. First on my 3D checklist was a compatible blu-ray player, which is the only option if you want to watch movies in three dimensions – if you’re still watching DVDs then I don’t want to talk to you anymore. There are an assortment of reasonably-priced players on the market but if you also happen to be a gamer then you might as well save your cash because last month’s firmware update for the PS3 means that Sony’s shiny black box is already 3D-friendly.

The next step in Operation Hardware Acquisition was to bag a 3D-capable screen. Again, there’s no shortage of offerings available but my advice is definitely to pick the biggest you can afford. There are all kinds of scientific formulae for choosing the optimum screen size relative to your viewing distance and the quality or your source material. Don't believe a word of it! There is only one thing you need to know about TV size: it is IMPOSSIBLE to have a screen that is too big. That's doubly true for 3D, where immersion is king. It’s no coincidence that IMAX screens take up the entirety of your peripheral vision and if you can come close to the same effect at home then you’re one step closer to home cinema heaven (and quite possibly optometric hell, but that’s something we won’t get into). With this in mind I settled on a hulking 55” behemoth from Samsung’s 8000 series, an LED set with pleasingly shiny chrome bezel and a screen roughly the thickness of my little finger.

Depending on your choice of set, you may or may not need to fork out for extra 3D glasses (assuming you mean to share at all), the Samsung came with one pair (in a fetching velvet pouch) while some other models come with a second pair or even none at all! A new set of specs will set you back something in the region of £100 - Hardly cheap but the current benchmark for home 3D is a technology called Alternate Frame Sequencing, which requires powered, rechargeable frames that sync wirelessly to the framerate on your display. Polarised 3D (like that used in IMAX), Autostereoscopic 3D (no glasses) and Anaglyph 3D (like that used in the Beano) are, for the sake of this blog, something you should put out of your mind.

But enough with the foreplay, let’s get on to the main event. How did it look? Well, sadly there’s not yet a 3D version of Avatar to put through its paces but to kick things off Monster House was happy to stand in. In many ways CG animations are the perfect titles to view in 3D and Monster House did not disappoint. The depth of field was consistently clear and blur-free, likewise fast moving pans and action sequences were free of ghosting or afterimages. Whether a little Z axis love adds to the overally enjoyment of a film is ultimately down to personal taste but having watched the first half in 3D, a step back to 2D for the grand finale left the film feeling flat in every conceivable way.

The only live action 3D title I had to hand was, for some reason, Resident Evil: Afterlife. Paul W.S. Anderson definitely made the most of the 3D camera once he’s got his hands on it and the showy use of depth survives the transition to blu-ray intact, axe blades and gore flying from the screen. It’s no closer to masterpiece status than it was in theatres but the extra dimension in visuals goes some way towards covering up for the lack of one in story or character.

3D films are what will prompt most of you to take the plunge, but the tipping point for home 3D seems increasingly likely to be games. As with movies, there aren’t a huge variety at the moment but one of those that has received a dimensional makeover is Wipeout HD on the PS3. If you haven’t played it first hand, it’s hard to understand how thrilling it is to hurtle around the anti-grav tracks with your 3D specs on. Already and intense racing experience, Wipeout is taken to an entirely new level with the introduction of 3D. Beyond the glorious aesthetic improvement, being able to gauge distances made for tighter cornering and better lap times. ‘Defocusing’ to read the HUD – which floats in the foreground – was oddly laborious but hardly a major inconvenience.

The only real downside to playing in 3D was a noticeable downgrade from 1080 to 720p and a chop from 60 to 30fps. That’s quite a big sacrifice to make for 3D sled racing but it seems to have been enforced to expedite Wipeout’s 3D update, rather than something we can expect from future titles. Next week’s Call of Duty: Black Ops boasts 3D with no loss in either framerate or resolution and is just as awesome an experience as it sounds. COD alone is sure to shift more 3D setups than any number of Final Destination discs could hope to.

So what did I learn from my 3D experiment? Mainly that I’m a convert. After almost eight hours straight I felt no discernible ill-effects (no headache, no dizziness, no brush with schizophrenia) and while I won’t be reaching for my 3D specs next time Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals comes on (“just look at the depth on that asparagus!”), it will change the way I watch movies. In the same way that I’d never willingly purchase a DVD over a blu-ray, I’d now be loathe to pick up a ‘flat’ edition when a 3D one was available. Similarly, now that I’ve gazed down the sights of an AK-47 in team deathmatch and seen my victims cut down in three dimensional space, I’d feel positively gimped having to go online and duke it out with the depth of field removed.

That's not to say taht I think every film should be made in 3D - I’m all for the flogging of filmmakers who take traditionally shot features and run them through some half-arsed 3D conversions. But as more films are shot in 3D with proper 3D cameras, it’s increasingly clear to me that the way to enjoy titles as they were meant to be seen is to pony up for the gear and embrace the third dimension. Who’s with me?

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