Steven Spielberg, the most influential visionary in US films, is involved in patenting what Hollywood has been dreaming of for decades – three-dimensional movies that can be viewed without using special glasses.

Spielberg, who pioneered the blockbuster with Jaws and computerised special effects with Jurassic Park, believes the technology for plain-view 3-D films has finally arrived.
In an interview with a Hollywood trade magazine, he let slip that he was involved in patenting a system that puts the viewer into the film – “inside the experience, which will surround you top, bottom, on all sides”.

If the technology wins acceptance, it will revolutionise cinemas, forcing them to tear out their traditional screens and replace them with giant plasma screens specially adapted to project Spielberg’s 3-D images.

This could revitalise the film industry, which is faced with declining audiences and fierce competition from rival mediums such as advanced video games.

But there is one big question: will it work? Filmmakers have been experimenting with 3-D since 1903, and there have been a succession of over-optimistic claims that it is about to become a mainstream technology.

The first screening of a 3-D film for a paying audience came in June 1915 when a short film, Jim the Penman, was shown in New York featuring scenes from rural America. It was treated as a novelty and forgotten.
In the 1950s, there were more claims that 3-D had arrived with the releases of Bwana Devil, which depicted attacks by maneating lions, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But the format failed to take off.

Hollywood tried again in 1983 with Jaws 3-D, the third of four films about killer sharks. It famously ended with the shark’s teeth emerging from the screen and going for the audience.

The film was a flop – and since then even pornographers, obvious potential beneficiaries from 3-D, have been scared away by the technical issues and cost.

The key problem is that so far all 3-D formats needed viewers to wear glasses with a red filter for one eye and a green filter for the other. Some people find these cause headaches and disorientation. Doing away with the glasses is crucial to taking 3-D into the movie mainstream.

Spielberg’s timing may be right – several big electronics manufacturers have recently demonstrated plasma screens that can project 3-D images visible to the unaided eye.

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