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This iconic image of 3-D movie viewers appeared in Life Magazine in 1952.

J.R. Eyerman

Before Avatar opened in theatres this week, industry watchers were already hailing the big-budget film by Titanic director James Cameron as the future of 3-D. The technology may already be a staple in newly released family films, most of which are animated, but Avatar is something different: It's aimed at adults.

With Avatar, the thinking goes, 3-D is becoming mainstream.

In all, 18 3-D movies opened in 2009, but three times that number - as many as 47 - are scheduled for release next year, many of which are anything but kid-friendly. And now that 3-D has conquered the movies, it's television's turn.

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Within six months, experts say, 3-D televisions will be in Canadian electronics stores, selling from $3,000 to $8,000. Sony expects that by 2012, 30 to 50 per cent of its TV sales will be 3-D. And in Britain, Sky Network is months away from launching the first 3-D channel.

"I would say it's as big a jump as HD [high-definition]" says Allan Bacchus, co-ordinator of features at Toronto's Canadian Film Centre, where last month he attended an exhibition of 3-D TVs presented by Panasonic.

"We were looking at a 100-inch plasma, 3-D TV that produced an absolutely pristine picture," he says. "They showed us the opening ceremonies from the Beijing Olympics, along with skiing and a clip from Avatar .

"What impressed me was that 3-D seems to have evolved from a gimmick. It's more sophisticated. You are no longer distracted by special effects. There is a feeling of natural depth. Like you can reach in and touch what's going on."

Aharon Etengoff, a Los Angeles-based reporter for the TG Daily (Tech Generation) website, believes 3-D TV will be here to stay. And that, before long, the technology will involve more than movies.

"There is too much money involved for it not to work," he says. "The studios want it to happen. The [computer]game industry is on board. TV makers are counting on it. The networks are watching to see what to do.

"Eventually, there will be 3-D TV [network]programming. But you won't find it coming from the major networks. Not at first. The innovation will come from smaller players."

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Undoubtedly, North American networks are keeping a close eye on what's happening in Britain, where in November, Channel 4 broadcast a retro 3-D week that included stereoscopic footage of the Queen's 1953 coronation. Meanwhile, Sky Network, months from its 3-D channel launch, is testing the technology on ballet, cricket, golf and music.

North America has already seen a few attempts at 3-D TV. NBC aired a special 3-D episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun in 1997. In 2000, Discovery Channel produced a Shark Week that involved coming-right-at-you Great Whites. And Turner Broadcasting aired the 2007 National Basketball Association all-star game in 3-D in select movie theatres.

Mr. Etengoff says kids will be one of the drivers for families to purchase 3-D TVs because so many movies aimed at children are now being produced with the technology. "We're creating a generation that is going to grow up expecting all visual entertainment - television along with movies and games - to come in 3-D."

He also figures that the tipping point will be when the clunky glasses disappear. "As long as there are glasses, it's going to feel a little cheap and there are going to be complaints," he says. "I know that from personal experience - 3-D glasses give me a headache."

Like a minority of 3-D spectators, Mr. Etengoff experiences what manufacturers call a "correspondence problem."

It's an issue that has plagued 3-D glasses makers going back to 1840, when a British inventor, Sir Charles Wheatstone, created a viewing device that simulated natural depth perception by offering left and right eye 2-D images of the same object.

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Modern 3-D scanners work basically the same way. The only problem is that the visuals don't line up precisely for some viewers. Images are blurred. Focusing becomes a problem. The result is a three-martini-calibre headache.

That's hard cheese for correspondence-problem sufferers, because glasses-free 3-D is probably 10 years away. But Sony believes 3-D TVs will fly off the shelves anyway. That might sound optimistic until you realize that, according to the market research firm DisplaySearch, worldwide shipment of HD flat-panel televisions represented only 5 per cent of all TV sales in 2004. By 2008, 75 per cent of all TVs shipped were HD.

Richard Bowden, director of sales at Bay-Bloor Radio in Toronto, says he expects Panasonic will be the first in his shop with 3-D TV, presuming that the company rolls out a new line at the end of March, as it has in the past. Panasonic sets will start at 50 inches and will cost around $3,000 - the same price as the high end of the market for flat-screen HD TVs.

Although he figures 3-D TV is the wave of the future, Mr. Etengoff isn't sure the prototype is going to be the model that captures our imagination (and savings accounts). And even if it does, 3-D won't stop there.

The entertainment industries rely on constant innovation to remain profitable, he says. "When I say 3-D TV is the wave of the future, I'm really talking about wave after wave. Because we're going to see years and years of refinements."

Stephen Cole is a Toronto-based writer.

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