3D: The Future of Adult Entertainment?

I can still remember seeing the ad in the Trenton Times: “See ... The Stewardesses ... IN 3D!” And somewhere down below: “Rated X.”

The year was 1969, and up to that point I had never seen a 3D movie of any kind, much less one that had sex in it. So that evening, I trundled off to the Lincoln Theater in Levittown, Pa., paid my admission, picked up my “special glasses” from a box by the theater entrance, and settled in for what I was sure would be the sexual experience of a lifetime.

Sadly, it wasn’t.

Yes, there was plenty of nudity, but not a lot of penetration. And what was that thing with the girl dropping acid and having sex with a lamp topped by the head of Julius Caesar?

What the movie did do, however, was spark a lifelong interest in 3D—an interest I suspect may also have been aroused in the hundred or so attendees at the Sept. 26 debut of porn’s first mass-distributed 3D movie in more than a decade, Tommy Gunn’s Cummin’ At You, which was shown on a giant-screen TV at Las Vegas’ Déjà vu Love Boutique.

But more on that later.

The point is, 3D is coming. It’s been around practically since cameras were invented. Throughout the 20th century it’s been tried in mass-market magazines, comic books and movies. The 1950s were the heyday of 3D cinema; now it’s back with a vengeance. And thanks to a push from some major electronics manufacturers, it’s not going away—so adult moviemakers and webmasters had better get used to it.

Or better still, they shoud try it themselves, as the folks at Pure Play Media have already done.

“In Canada, there’s a big theatrical chain called Cineplex Odeon, and in their last quarter financials, their net profit was up 10 percent—and that was directly attributed to 3D,” Pure Play CEO Richard Arnold reports. “3D brings in the crowds, and they charge a premium for the glasses. They also charge a premium [admission price] to view the 3D pictures.”

Arnold’s not the only studio head who’s taken note of the box-office promise of 3D. There are nine major-studio 3D movies scheduled for release in late 2009 and 2010, including James Cameron’s Avatar, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Pixar’s Toy Story 3 in 3D.

As Arnold explains, “There’s this huge driving fiscal factor that’s positive. Everything ultimately comes down to the bottom line, and for the theaters this is a big win.”

For the adult industry, however, a big win would have to involve providing consumers with equipment to watch high-quality 3D in their own homes. But given all the current developments in the 3D field, that’s something quite likely to come about relatively soon.

In the Beginning

Also known as “stereo”—and more recently “stereoscopic 3D” (S3D), to distinguish it from three-dimensional computer design programs—3D has been around since before cameras were invented, and it really took off once they were. By the early 1900s, companies such as the Keystone View Company and Underwood & Underwood had produced more than 300,000 different “stereoviews,” and looking at stereoview cards (you’ve probably seen them at flea markets) was the main home entertainment of early-20th-century America.

Stereo photography hit its stride in the early 1950s, when camera production boomed. The most popular camera, the Realist, was touted in ads by Hollywood celebrities such as Harold Lloyd, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire and Doris Day. Even President Eisenhower was a 3D enthusiast.

Nowadays, it’s easy to find a Realist for about $100 at used camera shows—and no wonder: More than 400,000 were manufactured. In addition to the Realist, I’ve owned about a dozen different stereo cameras over the years, from the Nimslo, which produces “lenticular” prints that you can see in 3D without glasses, to a string of double-lensed cameras with names like Kodak, Revere, Iloca and the Stereo Vivid, with its porn-friendly moniker. At the end of it all I’ve found one that produces (IMHO) the best “stereo pairs” around, the Wollensak.

And now Fujifilm makes a digital 3D camera, but more about that later.

There are several ways stereo may be presented. Besides the “side by side” stereoview, the left and right image of the stereo pair can be tinted different colors—usually red and cyan (blue), or red and green—in a process known as “anaglyph.” These pairs are then overlaid into a single image that can be perceived as 3D by wearing red/cyan or red/green glasses.

The first polarized 3D movie, In Tune With Tomorrow, was shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Polarization—running the left and right images through polarized filters for later “decoding” with polarized glasses—dominated mainstream film through its heyday in the mid-1950s and is the primary method (known as “RealD 3D”) used in film today. However, some theaters, notably Imax, use “sequential field” 3D. As left and right images are projected, special glasses darken one lens and then the other, which our brains interpret as seeing the image in depth.

Of course, sex has had its place in 3D since the beginning, with many famous early erotic photographers using the medium for 3D “French postcards.” The aforementioned The Stewardesses, presented in polarized format, was the first widely distributed 3D XXXer, and several sexy European productions followed. Then, in 1996, a new adult company, Vidmax, began offering a number of straight and gay sequential-field 3D titles such as Bedroom Cries and Boudoir Babe. Sadly, the attempt failed, in part because would-be fans couldn’t figure out how to hook up the necessary viewing equipment to their VCRs.

No Time Like the Present

But stereo returned to porn in style this September, with the release of Tommy Gunn’s Cummin’ At You in 3D, from Pure Play Media. The two-disc set includes three versions of the movie: one viewable in either sequential-field or polarized format (viewable on the proper equipment; see below), one anaglyph version (glasses included) and a 2D version. Besides being presented in 3D, the movie is also interactive, allowing the viewer to choose whether to see the action from either Gunn’s or co-star SinDee Jennings’ point of view, and at various points during play, viewers are allowed to choose which direction the sexual action will take—or they can use the “Adventure Randomizer” and let the DVD player make the choices for them.

“When I was first approached with this,” Pure Play’s Arnold recounts, “I said, ‘Forget it. Don’t even waste your time’—until I started looking into it, and looking into what is going to drive this market, and there are massive positive things. Right now, it’s the theater that’s going to drive the market.”

Arnold’s assessment was certainly correct. Most of the 19 movies in 3D released by Hollywood over the last two years have won their opening weekends for highest box office revenues, and each has continued to do well in the weeks following, even when up against 2D openings with major star power.

And that’s not all. Plans are also under way to convert several past box office successes to 3D for theatrical re-release—but the task isn’t easy.

“It’s too costly right now, but they’ve been doing it,” says Digital Playground owner Joone, who’s been looking into the possibility of his company releasing hardcore 3D. “Disney did it with Toy Story and Nightmare Before Christmas. I know George Lucas is doing it with all the Star Wars movies, and Cameron is putting Titanic out in 3D, but it’s costing about $15 million per movie to turn it into 3D. It’s a very labor-intensive, frame-by-frame task; you basically are separating every frame [element] from its background; you’re making all those decisions of what [people and objects] will go in front, middle and back of the screen, so it’s not a cheap thing to do. But they can do it because they have the theaters.”

Vivid Entertainment Group’s Steve Hirsch says his company is currently working with a developer who plans to market a TV with a lenticular screen that would allow 3D viewing without the need for special glasses. Hirsch feels that glasses are “awkward to wear while having sex”—several masturbators of our acquaintance would disagree—and could not easily be distributed with standard DVD packaging. (Several lenticular-screened TVs were on display at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show.) But Hirsch also feels that as more comfortable glasses are developed and become commonplace in homes, this will open up more opportunities for the industry.
And Hirsch isn’t the only porn bigwig considering stereo.

“We are actually in negotiations with someone right now to work out a 3D system we can be happy with,” Wicked Pictures VP Joy King says. “I don’t know if or when it’s ever going to happen, but I know we are talking.”

3D’s Biggest Selling Point

Another reason mainstream producers are willing to go to the extra expense of either making original 3D productions or revamping older films to 3D is piracy: As things currently stand, it’s impossible to pirate a 3D theatrical production.

“If I were a theater owner and I saw someone trying to enter my theater with a mini-DV camera, I’d just say, ‘Come on in!’” one knowledgeable mainstream director says. “They could point that camera at my [3D] screen all day long and not come out with anything usable, thanks to the polarization. It would come out looking like garbage.”

Indeed, one primary consideration in attempting to arrive at a universal standard for home 3D viewing is whether the discs can be programmed in such a way as to prevent illegal copying.

Three Words: Content, Content, Content

But is it too soon to prepare for the coming 3D world?

“We’ve been playing around with 3D, and we shot some stuff on 3D, but the biggest problem with 3D right now for us is delivery,” Digital Playground’s Joone notes. “Right now, there’s so many different formats and so many different wars as far as which format is going to win, that I don’t foresee this thing clearing out for at least the next five years. The thing is, there’s not even a standard yet on Blu-ray of how they’re going to do this.”

Not everyone is quite so pessimistic, however.

“From research and articles that I’ve looked at from different companies that have expressed interest in the 3D home-viewing experience, the way I understand it, their target would be sometime in the spring of 2010—the April or May time frame,” predicts Jake Westwood, a mainstream producer who recently shot his first hardcore 3D movie. “These major studios have all these blockbusters they’ve done and are doing in 3D, and it makes sense to me that they would package these films with their home systems to market and sell, to get the people away from the standard LCD screen into a 3D-capable screen for the home. And from what I’m hearing from people who work in the electronics end of the business, the prices are not going to be significantly more.”

The greatest problem facing adult producers who wish to enter the 3D market will be obtaining the necessary hardware. Vidmax’s 3D efforts were shot with the only mass-produced 3D camcorder to be made available to consumers: the much-coveted Toshiba SK-3D7K, produced in the mid-’90s, pre-owned units of which have sold for as much as $5,000 on eBay. Chances are, adult producers will have to build (or have built for them) their own dual-camera rig.

“It took about nine months to do the R&D and get our rig all developed properly,” Westwood says. “We used paired Sony HD video cameras and streamed directly off the Sony CMOS chip to a hard drive, for a 1920p by 1080p uncompressed HD image. We used some custom engineering to completely bypass the compression that they typically use to cram high-definition images onto disks or tape, and that allowed us to maximize the chips that we were using for the shoot.”

Part of the problem is that video cameras, even small ones, are still relatively large for 3D work. Stereopsis—the ability of brain to perceive depth—requires two images that resemble each other closely enough to allow the brain to interpret what the eyes see into a single 3D image rather than simply a pair of flat images. It’s the apparent difference between looking at a photograph and looking through a window at the people and landscape beyond. Generally, this means images are taken by twin lenses just 65 millimeters apart—the distance between the average adult’s eyes. A smaller “interocular” distance would prevent the images from fusing properly, while a much greater distance would cause a loss of 3D effect.

Setting the proper interocular distance also depends on the size of the image you’re trying to capture. A 3D image of a single flower may require photos or video taken just one inch apart, while a stereo view of the Grand Canyon would require cameras set 10 feet apart or greater.

“We had to build a custom system,” explains Wade Everwood, who designed the camera system used to shoot PurePlay’s Cummin’ At You. “The problem is, to get POV, you need a very short interocular, and typically, large beamsplitter rigs are used to bring the interocular down because the cameras themselves are too large to put them side by side. The problem with beamsplitters is, they’re gigantic—big pieces of glass—and Tommy couldn’t hold onto that. So we created something we’re not ready to show off yet; it was really very prototype, but the experiment worked, and as far as we know, we’re the first ones out with a POV 3D camera that’s light enough for the male performer to hold while he’s doing everything else.”

But it’s not enough just to have the lenses the proper distance from each other; they also have to be using the same focal length and the same magnification, although to some extent, problems with either can be fixed in post-production. The object, of course, is to avoid giving viewers headaches.

“The biggest tip I can give to anyone thinking of venturing into stereo is that to make it look good, it is a post-production process,” Westwood states. “People don’t understand that; they just think you put two cameras together and you make a movie. To make the experience enjoyable, it’s very important not to neglect the post-production process; that’s where the most time is going to be spent, just working with the images to create your stereo. Because when you use two separate entities [cameras], it takes a lot of massaging and a lot of time to make those decisions. And that’s what it is—decisions.”

Of course, pre-production isn’t a walk in the park either.

“When you have two cameras, it’s double the headaches,” Westwood explains. “I can’t stress pre-production enough—working with your production designer and getting the shots set up prior to shoot day. And especially when your camera’s out and you’re shooting, things go so fast that you just try to get through it. Then there was the time that one of our cameras failed, and that put us down for a significant amount of time ... I learned a lot and I need to take these lessons with me.”

However, those would-be content producers and webmasters who don’t have access to a dual camera rig can still experiment with first-class 3D imagery on the cheap. The Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W1, the first mass-produced digital stereo camera, went on sale in the U.S. in mid-October, with a list price under $600. The dual-lens camera, which produces twin 10-megapixel images, can shoot both digital 3D stills in “multiple picture format” (.MPO) and even 15-minute 3D movies in 3D-AVI format, all of which can be viewed immediately in 3D on the camera’s digital display screen, or downloaded to a computer for tweaking with Fuji’s own software (included) or Photoshop or other image manipulation software.

Bringing It Home

Several major TV and DVD player manufacturers, including Sony, Samsung and Panasonic (and even Technicolor), are hard at work trying to hammer out a workable 3D system for home viewing—and if there’s one problem no one wants to face in the current economic downturn, it’s another round of competing formats. Remember VHS versus Beta? Laserdisc versus DVD? Blu-ray versus HD DVD? Those competitions were very costly to all involved, and all created justifiable anger from consumers who opted for the “wrong” format choice.
“We’re all just waiting to find out where Blu-ray is going, because just last month [August], both Sony and Panasonic announced their plans, and my understanding is, they’re both kind of on the same track,” Everwood says. “Sony is the one that you have to look to for the Blu-ray. My understanding of what they’re planning to do is actually have the two [image] streams on the same disk, and they’re going to do some modification to their PS3 game console and to all their Blu-ray players so they can send out a dual stream, left and right, so their new Bravia monitor will interpret that properly. They’re using an active [sequential-field, or shutter] glasses system, and the Bravia monitor will show the full 1920p by 1080p for each eye, whereas with these other systems, they’re simple but you’re losing half of the horizontal resolution. So there are pros and cons on both sides. But all the major television manufacturers have announced they’re going to 3D. We know 3D is here; it’s not just a fad this time. It’s the next technology to happen at home.”

In addition to Sony’s Bravia, Panasonic has also unveiled a 50-inch HD plasma TV, to be launched sometime in 2010, that can handle both 2D and 3D images—but it’s the Blu-ray standard that will make the most impact on the consumer market. Panasonic submitted a proposal to the Blu-ray Disc Association last November that would create guidelines for companies and studios using “left/right-eye two-channel Full HD images” on HDTVs with Blu-ray, and once that standard is established, 3D-compatible TVs and monitors will be able to transform the signal into whichever viewable 3D image the hardware is designed to present: sequential field or various types of micropolarization. One advantage of Panasonic’s proposal is that it uses existing Blu-ray standards.
“All we have to do is define a flag to identify image data, equipment and other elements supporting 3D imagery,” says Hiroshi Miyai, Panasonic’s director of audio-visual development. “We really don’t need any other major changes.”

Surprisingly, there’s one entertainment platform where 3D is already established: video games.
“There are a lot of them out there,” Everwood says. “A little searching on the internet and you will find there’s a huge community of stereoscopic 3D gamers.”

But are they old enough to watch adult?

“I’d say most of them are,” he assesses. “They already have a PC; they already have the shutter glasses or whatever their system happens to be. Nvidia is the big proponent, so with the proper Nvidia graphics card, the stereoscopic driver [and] a piece of software called TriDef—which most of these guys are going to have already anyway; a lot of the time, it gets bundled with monitors—basically you put the disc in, you tell it that it’s a side-by-side format, and boom, there it is in 3D.”

“They’ve done the demographics on game usage, and it’s not the kids that are playing games; it’s 35-year-olds,” Arnold echoes. “We aren’t after the under-18 crowd, but that’s not really the gaming crowd. The gaming crowd is 18 to 35.”

And the inventors keep going back to the drawing board, coming up with newer and better equipment. I was privileged to receive this summer a demonstration of a new 3D presentation system developed by HDI, Ltd. The system uses a tri-laser micro-projection system that can present dual 1920p by 1080p images with colors so true it surpasses any projection system on the market today. The rear-projection system uses circularly polarized glasses similar to those used by RealD, with the entire unit no deeper than 10 percent of its screen’s diagonal. In other words, a 100-inch diagonal screen yields a unit just 10 inches in depth that draws just 200 watts in power, as compared to a 100-inch plasma screen that draws 1.5 kilowatts.

The unit will be available for mass production sometime in 2010, but due to the high cost of the lasers, it’ll debut at a costly $10,000, though depending on the volume of orders, the price could drop as low as $5,000. But venues with mini-theaters could easily install the unit and serve their customers what co-developer Ingemar Janssen calls a “truly remarkable 3D experience.”

Janssen and his partner spoke about “The Future of Television” at the Intel Developers Forum in late September. And when Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak saw the system, he reportedly said, “Without a doubt, this is the best demonstration of 3D technology I have ever seen.”

The Future’s So Bright, We’ve Gotta Wear Shades

I’ve been interested in 3D for almost as long as I’ve been reporting on the adult industry—and that span of time covers more than a couple of decades, shall we say. And at no time has there been more convergence between my two fields of interest.

The simple fact is, 3D is here to stay. It’s been part of the art of photography since the inception of the medium, and the technology is only getting better. With 3D, studios can present movies that allow porn lovers to feel as if they’re watching the action—even hardcore sexual action—through an open window rather than simply flat on a screen. In the ever-present race to attract viewers, what could be more compelling?

And given the added bonus that the material is impervious to video piracy, it just makes sense for forward-thinking video and web-based producers to start thinking about how to incorporate 3D in their own work. And now, on the crest of a new wave of 3D innovations, it’s time to bone up on 3D technology ... or they may find themselves, within a year or two, left in the dust.

This article originally ran in the November issue of AVN.