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Is This Really the End of 3D?

The journey of 3D from 1960s novelty, to err... 2000s novelty has meant its tarnished reputation is enough to pronounce it dead in the water. But, by lowering expectations - and its screen size - 3D might still have a place in our lives.

This week, Sky announced it was closing its channel dedicated to all things 3D. Before that, ESPN decided it too had had enough with splurging on making content jump out of the screen.

In fact, the death of 3D has become a topic among tech circles that has, over the past 18 months slid firmly in favour of the 'yes' camp. On the hardware front, 3DTVs were everywhere in 2013.

At the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, also known as CES, Sony, LG, Samsung and Panasonic were all touting their 3D wares, with a mind-boggling array of technology to delight - and confuse - the consumer.

But in 2014, Panasonic and new kid on the block, Vizio decided to start rejecting 3DTV technology all together. Companies like Samsung and Sony thought there was still a place in our living rooms for all that 3D content that TV and film studios weren't producing. So they soldiered on.

But this year, in the aircraft hangar sized halls of CES, 3D was strangely absent. In fact, Samsung, LG and Sony had all announced whopping big screens that didn't even support the format. The living room's love affair with 3D was over.

What about content? Surely the cinemas are still holding a candle for 3D? In 2012, 41 movies that were released on international markets had 3D attached to them. In 2013, that number went down to 35, and by last year there were just 28 watchable films that involved wearing glasses.

Gone are the days when movies, such as 2010s Clash of the Titans were hauled back into production so the film could be upgraded for supposedly 3D hungry audiences. We are a long way from James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster, Avatar.

Even a company like Sony, who owns not only the hardware to watch 3D on at home, but also has a studio to make it, a Blu-ray player to play it, and a TV network and film distribution service to get its products into as many places as possible, has abandoned it.

Yet, despite all of this, 3D has quietly managed to reinvent itself, not on the big screen, but the one that sits in your pocket. Smartphones have become the centre of people's lives, and more recently, the centre, and future of 3D. But there have been a few false starts.

In 2011, HTC's EVO 3D and LG's Optimus 3D tried to jump the gun by sticking passive 3D technology into a tiny screen. While impressive, the response from the critics was, great if you don't mind having a headache all the time.

Both phone-makers failed to understand why 3D would be useful on a smartphone and quietly hauled themt off to the 3D graveyard. They also didn't understand that a 3D experience was only something people wanted some of the time - not all of the time.

Fast-forward four years and the world of 3D looks different. Instead of forcing our eyes to do the work of convincing our brains that a flat image has depth, we now use a phone's processing power to do it for us.

Apps such as Seene take standard photos and map them onto a 3D composite model of your subject. When you tilt your smartphone the image changes perspective. All the hard work is being done by the phone, not your eyes. The app itself has been downloaded more than a million times, so it's safe to say it's not a flash in the pan.

But perhaps the greatest potential for 3D to find a way back into our lives comes in the form of virtual reality. While the now Facebook owned Oculus Rift has been freaking people out on YouTube for several years while its been in development, the likes of Samsung, and yep, Sony - two big investors in 3D film and TV technology - have created their own headsets respectively.

So, like in the case of the original 3D format, huge companies are throwing cash into VR. While virtual reality is not strictly the same as the active 3D - where the images come out of the screen - we saw in films like Avatar, they do create a sense of depth inside the screen, or passive 3D. A helpful guide can be found here.

But for me, the home of 3D - and its saviour - lies with the smartphone. Not in overly engineered electronics like the HTC Evo and LG, but with apps like Seene and software like that behind Google Cardboard. The search giant's low-key solution to virtual reality is essentially a cardboard set of goggles you slide your smartphone into. Using an app and your mobile's accelerometers, you can explore worlds and play games by simply moving your head.

The journey of 3D from 1960s novelty, to err... 2000s novelty has meant its tarnished reputation is enough to pronounce it dead in the water. But, by lowering expectations - and its screen size - 3D might still have a place in our lives.

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