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Could the new Oz movie do for 3D cinema what the original did for color?

oz the great and powerful movie-2013
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Oz the Great and Powerful is a must-see movie for me, as it is for a lot of people. (Chances are I’ll be watching as you read this, as it opened this weekend.) But beyond offering audiences another look at the infamous “man behind the curtain,” I wonder whether the new Oz has the potential to do for 3D movies what the original did for color all the way back in 1939. As it turns out, there are more than a few parallels between the emerging technologies used in both movies.

Some history

When The Wizard of Oz came out in 1939, color movies were a very new thing, and the technology wasn’t really catching on in movies. For people to want color – something we take for granted today – they had to see the advantages. The Wizard of Oz starkly illustrated this advantage by starting in black and white, then brilliantly transitioning to color when the characters end up in Oz. After seeing the difference between the dull black and white of reality and the amazing magic of the color, it’s hard to leave that magical world. And audiences didn’t want to.

Color TV didn’t catch on until more than 20 years later when Disney (which is backing the new Oz film) began airing Wonderful World of Color. Prior to that, there was no iconic TV show airing in color that people wanted. But Wonderful World of Color was a kid’s show; it was magical, with stories out of fantasy and imagination. If a house in the neighborhood had color TV, that was where all of the kids congregated, giving that house status. No parent wants to feel like he is providing more poorly than his neighbors, and color TVs, which had been selling poorly, started flying off the shelves.

1939 wizard of oz blu ray yellow brick road
Image used with permission by copyright holder

But The Wizard of Oz really blazed the same path in theaters by showcasing the advantages of color connected to fantasy. I doubt Disney would have created the show that finally made color a success without Oz’s influence decades earlier.

3D today

The state of 3D TV in 2013 looks a lot like the state of color film back in 1939. Yes, Avatar was an amazing film when it debuted in 2009, but it didn’t connect 3D to magic like The Wizard of Oz did and blaze a trail. Movies using 3D have come out since, but there really aren’t many that you can point to that absolutely must be seen in 3D. Oz the Great and Powerful, according to producer Joe Roth, is going to try to do what The Wizard of Oz did and showcase the magic of 3D. If audiences see it that way, it’s certainly possible that someone will come up with a 3D TV show that could drive 3D into the home as Disney did with color.

Solving the glasses problem

oz the great and powerful movie
Image used with permission by copyright holder

No matter what genius content filmmakers concoct, the biggest problem with 3D TV remains the damn glasses. Right now, the vast majority of 3D TVs not only require glasses, they require the expensive active-shutter glasses, which don’t even work across different brands of TV. That means if little Johnny has a 3D TV from Samsung and wonders over to Billy’s house to watch a TV from Sony, it is likely his 3D glasses won’t work today. And these glasses aren’t cheap, often costing around $100 a pair.

Some TVs use passive glasses, but the experience isn’t as good even though the glasses (often costing under $15) are more affordable and can be used in non-IMAX 3D theaters (I have an expensive set I wear to the movies).

Do we really have to wait another 20 years?

If this new film ends up invigorating 3D the same way the 1939 movie did for color, it could make 3D TV take off eventually. Given that “eventually” took more than 20 years the first time around, that probably doesn’t provide much comfort to 3D filmmakers and TV manufacturers. But there’s reason to believe it could be sooner. Color TVs didn’t start shipping until years after The Wizard of Oz hit theaters, but 3D TVs are in the market now. I do think the success of 3D may have to wait for the emergence of 3D TVs that don’t need glasses, but there is still a chance, a very good one actually, that 3D could become as powerful as color far faster this time. Check out Oz the Great and Powerful and, if you see it, let me know if it makes you think differently about 3D.

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Rob Enderle
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Rob is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. Before…
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