avatarJames Cameron’s Avatar film is breaking box office records, coming through on its promise to combine a riveting story with good use of cool 3-D special effects. And that’s extremely good news for companies hawking 3-D viewing technology at the International Consumer Electronics Show which starts next week.

Were it not for Avatar’s popularity (it’s generated more than $500 million in worldwide box office receipts in its first 10 days), 3-D might have been just another also ran at CES, where the big trends of the future are often crystallized. Last year, 3-D got a lot of hype from speakers ranging from James Cameron to Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks Interactive. But most people, including me, were skeptical that 3-D glasses would really enhance the viewing of films and TV shows.

I expressed my skepticism last year even after many executives declared that 3-D glasses had made huge improvements on older headache-inducing technologies. Movies such as Up and Monsters vs. Aliens carried the banner for 3-D in 2009. And Intel sponsored a fairly weak demonstration of 3-D in a commercial on the Super Bowl early in 2009. All of that left me underwhelmed.

The whole idea is to create an immersive experience that makes you think you’re inside the action. Too often, the attempts to do this have left people disoriented. But now that I’ve seen Avatar, I’m impressed with the great leaps the technology has made, at least when it comes to the experience in movie theaters. And I’m sure 3-D advocates are going to use Avatar as their poster child as they hawk new gear at CES.

The 3D@Home Consortium, whose member companies will be displaying their wares at the Experience 3D Tech Zone on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center during CES, wants consumers to make the leap from watching 3-D at the movies to watching it at home. There are about 38 member companies in the group, including TV makers such as LG, Mitsubishi, Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung. They’re holding their own conference at CES to talk about issues such as distributing 3-D movies and creating standards for both 3-D effects and glasses.

Have we reached a tipping point yet for 3-D TVs? Sony is predicting that 30 – 50 percent of its TVs will use 3-D in the year that starts in April, 2012. Hollywood movie makers are creating dozens of 3-D films for debut in 2010. Rupert Gavin, chief executive of the Odeon theater chain, said that 10 percent of box office receipts this year came from 3-D movies and he expects it will be 20 percent in 2010.

The movie industry has a vested interest in 3-D as an anti-piracy measure. 3-D films can be pirated, but the experience of watching them in 3-D can’t be. The same goes for 3-D movies viewed in the home. That’s why we’re seeing an industry-wide effort to promote 3-D, which has been around since the 1950s.

Nvidia, meanwhile, is moving into its second year promoting 3-D gaming on the PC. Departing from its business of selling chips, the company started selling its own Nvidia 3D Vision glasses for viewing PC games in 3D. And a number of consumer electronics companies are getting behind plans to create 3-D Blu-ray movies.

Among the beneficiaries of Avatar are glasses makers such as RealID, which is flying high now, since its glasses are being used to view Avatar. And audiophiles at places like Dolby will be happy to know that I was also impressed with the ear-popping surround-sound effects in Avatar. You could clearly hear the directional sounds and the crack of gunshots. Dolby’s argument is that you can’t have 3-D viewing without 3-D audio.

Movie makers and theaters are already seeing the benefits of 3-D films. It remains to be seen if TV makers, audio companies, and other makers of consumer electronics gear will cash in as well.


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