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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 December 2018

Imax killing 3D is an important lesson for AR and VR

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If there has been a better technology-related good-news development this year than Imax moving to dump 3D movies, I must have missed it.

Ding dong, the witch is dead – almost – and it is way overdue.

The large-format movie company made the announcement last week after reporting disappointing second-quarter earnings. In talking about the successful opening weekend of the Second World War epic Dunkirk, which was screened only in 2D and not 3D, the Imax chief executive Greg Foster said customers have shown “a strong preference” for the former version of movies.

“We’re looking forward to playing fewer 3D versions of films and more 2D versions,” he said, adding that the anticipated science-fiction blockbuster Blade Runner 2049 will be shown exclusively in 2D when it opens in October.

That is no guarantee that 3D movies in general are about to become extinct, but with directors and studios increasingly shooting for the Imax format and the company itself publicly lambasting the technology, its future looks dark. About as dark as the films themselves when viewed through 3D glasses.

Picture dimming is only one of the reasons why movie-goers are showing that “strong preference” for 2D. The Motion Picture Association of America, for example, reports an 8 per cent decline in 3D movie attendance last year.

Cost is also an issue. Cinemas charge extra for 3D – typically between Dh10 to Dh14 more per ticket in the UAE – despite the fact that few movies are actually improved by it. In some cases the 3D version, and therefore the more expensive version, is the only option available to movie-goers. If you are a film buff, you probably find that offensive.

But the biggest reason why people prefer 2D is that they hate wearing 3D glasses.

How much do they hate wearing glasses? Well, many of us who need to wear glasses just to make proper use of one of our senses – arguably the most important one – in fact go to great lengths to avoid wearing them.

We hate glasses so much that we train ourselves to stick little plastic discs in our eyes. If you’ve never tried wearing contact lenses, trust me, it is one of the hardest, most unnatural things a human can ever learn to do. I imagine that removing your own appendix may be marginally more difficult – but only marginally.

Some of us hate wearing glasses so much, we voluntarily allow someone to shoot lasers into our eyes. Think about making that decision. I have yet to work up the courage, but many people go through with it. There would be no laser surgery industry if people enjoyed wearing glasses.

The only exception to this rule are sunglasses – and that is because we look cool wearing them. They have had great marketing, ironically thanks to Hollywood. They are also a fairly simple technological innovation that lets us see in bright sunlight.

Those facts notwithstanding, no one likes to wear sunglasses for longer than is absolutely necessary. They leave dents in our nose and can make us look like raccoons if we leave them on too long in the sun.

Believe it or not, there is an important lesson here that ties into some of the bigger trends happening in technology right now.

Wearables in general, which includes glasses but also wrist-worn devices such as smartwatches, are dying a quick death. Virtual reality, meanwhile, is also having difficulty catching on. There is an old song about having to wear shades because the future is so bright. That does not apply here.

Both trends are rooted in the same truism – that people simply do not like having to wear extraneous items, accessories or devices unless they absolutely have to, or unless such things provide undeniable benefits or capabilities that trivialise their obvious downsides.

It is why talk of various companies, including Apple, developing augmented reality glasses is such a head-scratcher. Such products, unless they somehow manage to defy these rather great odds, are destined to fail.

Apple, of all companies, should know this through the lacklustre performance of its own Apple Watch. The Watch was supposed to be the next big thing, but instead it is the thing that Apple talks about the least in its financial reports.

Apple AR glasses, if the rumours end up being true, are sure to be the company’s next big flop. 3D movies are at least a technological generation removed from augmented reality, but they are also a timeless instructive lesson as to why.

And lest anyone herald 3D-ditching Imax as an organisation with its finger on the pulse of tomorrow, it is worth noting that the Canadian company is still pressing ahead with virtual reality. Imax opened its first VR lounge in Los Angeles this past January, with plans for at least five more this year.

There is little doubt virtual reality is an incredible technology with future promise, but both VR and AR are facing the same fundamental obstacle as 3D: when it comes to putting stuff on our faces, we humans have shown “a strong preference” to not doing so.