On 8 January in Las Vegas, Nevada, few days after James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar crossed the $1 billion (around Rs4,600 crore) mark—it has since gone on to become the highest grossing film of all time—3D was once again the buzzword.

At the showfloor of the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), an annual consumer technology event—almost every major tech firm seemed to have a 3D ace up their sleeve—Sony, Samsung, and Toshiba unveiled 3D Blu-Ray players. Panasonic went a step further—launching a 3D TV prototype as well as a high-definition 3D camera. At a CES press conference, Avatar producer Jon Landau said, “3D is not about gags; it’s about creating a window into a world. We’ll see 3D become ubiquitous."

Halfway across the world, on the same day, at the New Delhi auto expo in Pragati Maidan, another kind of 3D technology was being showcased. Software company Microsoft demonstrated one of their “surface" computers—a flat dining table-like device on which users could touch and browse through 3D car models, even design their own cars with the use of simple gestures.

In the aftermath of Avatar’s much-hyped 3D release, the third dimension has become the hottest trend on the technology circuit. But what exactly does it mean?

There are two kinds of 3D technology that are currently gaining traction.

3D race: (clockwise from below) The audience at a screening of Cameron’s Avatar in China; a still from the film;Microsoft demonstrates its upcoming Project Natal for the Xbox 360.

Tentative steps

“India made its first 3D stereoscopy film with the Malayalam movie (My Dear) Kuttichaathan (dubbed into Hindi as Chhota Chetan) in 1984 but the movement towards 3D didn’t take off then because there weren’t too many facilities," says A.K. Madhavan, chief executive officer of Mumbai-based Crest Animation Studios Ltd, which is currently working on an animated stereoscopic film called Alpha and Omega. “It’s the rise of multiplexes that made cinemas ready to handle 3D films."

Madhavan says stereoscopy will no longer stay confined to cinemas, and will move into living rooms with 3D-enabled TVs, like the one Panasonic unveiled at CES.

“It’s just going to take two or three years for the sets to be available in the market. Like the transition we made from black and white to colour to high definition, we are going to go to 3D stereoscopy television sets," he says.

The technology now extends beyond film as well. In December 2009, Fujifilm launched their 3D digital camera, the FinePix REAL 3D W1, which has two lenses, placed at approximately the same distance apart as the human eyes. The two lenses take simultaneous photos of the same object, the camera layers them together, and shows you a composite 3D image, similar to a how a still from Avatar, with goggles on, would look.

But what advantages does 3D offer over a traditional film? “The “wow factor sells," says Madhavan. “The reason people will watch a regular movie in 3D—a non-animated, non-action, non-sports movie—like, say, a Karan Johar film, is because 3D will make Johar’s wedding scenes look even more grand."

Others are not quite as sure about the leap to 3D. Pramod Dhaval, the chief technology officer at Sanraa Media, a Chennai-based new media firm specializing in film production, graphics and animation, acknowledges the “theme park ride" excitement that 3D offers, but doesn’t see it becoming ubiquitous. “The script and story has to be written for 3D," he says. “It has to add value to the story, rather than just popping out of the screen for 3D’s sake."

The extra cost that going 3D entails, he says, will also keep smaller productions away. Cameron’s Avatar was budgeted at nearly $300 million. “The format is still evolving, and there are no standardized production techniques yet," Dhaval adds.

The future is here

The second kind of 3D technology, whose roots go back further into computing past, involves the development of a three-dimensional interface, a spatially-aware system that can read and understand gestures and movement. These are sometimes referred to as “natural user interfaces", and are often seen in science fiction films such as Minority Report.

Three-dimentional visual in everyday computing has traditionally been associated with videogames (as in a 3D game), so it’s not surprising that most of the advances in this field have come from the gaming industry.

In 1995, Nintendo debuted an ill-fated device called a Virtual Boy, a gigantic head-mounted device that looked like a prop from Robocop. It used a variant of 3D stereoscopy called “parallax" for its games, which were mostly in monochrome. It was discontinued the following year.

It wasn’t until 2006, when Nintendo hit success with the Nintendo Wii game console that interest in 3D interfaces started developing. The Wii used a wireless remote fitted with an accelerometer to detect swings and jabs. The Wii’s most popular game, a Nintendo-developed title called Wii Sports, allowed players to play simple games like tennis or boxing by swinging and stabbing with the remote.

As of 2010, both Sony and Microsoft are working on motion-enhanced controllers for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles respectively.

Microsoft previewed their variant called Project Natal in 2009. It uses an internally-developed projector that can translate body movements into in-game action. Kick, and your in-game character kicks. Mime a steering wheel, and you can play a racing game.

“With Project Natal, we are removing the last barrier to gaming: the controller," says a spokesperson for Microsoft India. “It’s an entirely new yet completely natural way to play." Natal is due to be launched in December 2010.

But while 3D is the next big thing for entertainment and play, getting work done with it still a while away. A US-based start-up called Bumptop is dabbling with a 3D interface that replaces the staid, boring Windows desktop with stacks, piles and objects strewn around, exactly like a messy desk. But Dhaval feels 3D is too cumbersome for everyday computing. “It’s too early for that," he says. “It will take a while before people get used to it. It’s currently best used in short bursts."