While filmmakers would love for everyone to see their work projected on a 60-foot theatre screen, many of us watch movies on tiny laptop screens or even our cell phones. The iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, HTC One, and many others are able to offer pristine 1080p high definition and excellent sound if paired with the right headset. It leads many casual filmgoers to assume that this is an acceptable format in which they will “see” all they need to see from a film. To paraphrase David Lynch from a 2008 interview, these types of viewers are cheating themselves out of an experience. But is this really the case? Aren’t audiences able to tune out their surroundings and focus on a 7” screen the way they would for a 70” one? As studios and theatre chains work to keep audiences coming to see movies, one of the most heavily endorsed attractions in recent times has been the release of films in 3D, a technology that so far has been suited primarily to the cinema.
Today at E3 in Los Angeles, I saw a smartphone that may have the ability to change that. Chinese company Snail has unveiled a smartphone that is also a handheld gaming device and a movie player – all in glasses-free 3D. The W3D, as it is called, is nowhere near as big or as bulky as you would expect, looking about as sleek as the PS Vita. It’s fully equipped with the Android 4.4 operating system, 1080p resolution, as well as a 5.5” screen.
All this sounds promising until you realize that you haven’t even seen what this thing is capable of. To the top left of the screen is an infrared sensor that follows the path of your eye and then converts the image to 3D based on the direction you’re viewing it in. That means you don’t have to hold the device directly in front of you to get the proper 3D effect. If you hold the device on an angle too far away for the infrared to match your eye line, the image will automatically reconfigure to 2D.
Snail used their own martial arts MMO titled Age of Wushu to showcase the W3D’s capabilities. Playing the game, I wasn’t quite convinced on the 3D technology as the images came out more often than not blurry than actual 3D. But when I asked to see what a movie would look like being played, the team showed me a demo video of a snake crawling out of the tree. The 3D for this was a lot better. In fact, it was astounding. The depth of field and the clarity beat out almost all the 3D TVs I’ve come across, which also made me wonder if the company still has some work to do on the 3D gaming front before it is unveiled to the North American market for sale. I then watched the trailer for the animated film, Rise of the Guardians, which I’ve already seen in theatres projected with Real D. I was yet again thoroughly impressed by the clarity of the images, especially in its 3D presentation.
Upon leaving the booth, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is yet another roadblock in the film industry’s attempts to keep butts in theatre seats. While 3D filmmaking certainly has its share of critics, there is no denying that 3D done right can be an incredible experience. But if this technology can be provided in the palm of one’s hand, what’s to stop the average filmgoer from waiting to see James Cameron’s Avatar 2 when it debuts on iTunes as opposed to spending the $20+ dollars to see it in the theatre? Theatre chains are already struggling with audience attendance and studios caught on to 3D as a way of providing an experience that could not be duplicated elsewhere. With the W3D, Snail might have provided a desirable alternative.
As a film fan, there’s nothing that could replace seeing a movie in the theatre, whether it be exhibited in 3D or 2D. The size and scope of the theatre screen combined with the darkened room is meant to immerse audiences into the story without any distractions. It’s an experience that cannot be substituted with a large TV, even with surround sound, and it certainly cannot be matched by a smartphone. But I can only speak for myself. With this innovative step forward in bringing 3D into the hands of consumers, who knows if average filmgoers will look to the smartphone as an even more acceptable means of viewing movies.