Are Premium 3D Glasses Worth It?

Philip Berne - Nov 23, 2010
Are Premium 3D Glasses Worth It?

I was going to review Harry Potter this weekend, but I realized that would be a pointless endeavor. I try to review films on the edge of good taste, to either save my readers from a horrible film, or recommend a surprisingly good one. Harry Potter is a no-brainer movie. If you have seen the first six movies, you must see this one. If you haven’t seen them, you have about 15 hours of movie watching to do before Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I will make any sense. So, instead of reviewing the obvious blockbuster hit, I decided to try an experiment.

Needless to say, I’m excited about the new Tron movie coming out, and I don’t mind buying into some of the merchandise. After all, I did love the style of Tron, and I wouldn’t mind buying, say, a Tron mouse or a Tron Xbox controller. I wouldn’t pay much of a premium for it, but all things being equal, I’d prefer a controller decked out in soothing blue LED lines, rather than a plain grey.

Then, along came a bit of paraphernalia that intrigued me. When I first saw the Oakley Tron-branded 3D glasses, I laughed. They cost $150. Who would pay that much for 3D glasses? Certainly not me. You cannot use them as normal sunglasses. They would give you a headache after a day’s use, and they wouldn’t even be effective at blocking UV light or glare, because of the way they are polarized. I have paid that much for sunglasses, and I currently wear a pair of Oakley’s as my everyday shades, so I am in the target audience (not even including the Tron obsession), but I couldn’t imagine actually shelling out the dough.

But I’ve always felt like 3D movies weren’t meeting my expectations for quality. Not just the subject matter, the actual 3D, depth of field technology. It always seemed dim. There is ghosting, where you can see the edges of two images overlapping slightly. Sometimes it’s hard to focus quickly, and I lose the action. Other times, my eyes just seem to ignore some of the more blatant 3D effects. When objects are supposed to jump off the screen at me, I usually don’t perceive them that way. I always wondered if it was the glasses that were at fault.

Worst of all? When you touch the 3D lenses after touching some popcorn or soda. You get a splotch on the ‘lens.’ Wipe it with a shirt or a napkin and you only smear the stain. There is no way to really clean the glasses, so either you live with foggy vision for the rest of the movie, or you have to go out to the lobby to get another pair.

I’ve committed myself to reviewing most of the 3D films that come out in the next year or so. I want to trace the development of the 3D technology as it becomes more and more ubiquitous. I want to see how bad it can get, and also report on the best 3D experiences available. I’ve probably seen a dozen 3D movies since Avatar (including a third trip to Avatar when it was re-released with extra footage). So, if the $150 expense of some fantastic 3D glasses is worthwhile for anyone, it’s probably worthwhile for me.

If they suck, Oakley has a 30-day return policy. No harm, no foul.

I bought a pair of Oakley Gascan 3D glasses. The normal pair runs for $120, but the Tron edition, which is only different in a dab of blue paint on the frames, run an extra $30, for $150 total. I bought the Tron edition.

Then I had to find a 3D movie. The pickings are slim these days, not just because all of the movies in 3D are so awful, but because I’ve seen them all. Saw 3D? Seen it. Jackass 3D. Yup. The only movie left was “Megamind.” I’d considered it when it launched, but it seemed more of a kid’s movie. But I love a good animated flick, so I took my glasses and headed to the theater.

The experience really was much better. I had the theater-supplied glasses and my new Oakleys, and I tried some A-B tests, flipping each on and off to watch the same scene with both styles. Here’s what I discovered.

First, the movie looked much more clear in the Oakleys. I saw almost no ghosting. On one occasion, I saw the effect, but since it’s perceptual I wonder if I didn’t force myself to see it by looking for it. With the theater glasses, I noticed ghosting when I wasn’t looking for it.

The theater glasses start to blur around the edges. Because they don’t curve with your face, if you look at something in your peripheral vision, it doesn’t look as clean and well-formed as something directly in front of you. I never noticed this before, but switching back and forth with the Oakleys, I realized that the peripheral vision was greatly improved.

I also felt like I was perceiving depth much better. Not so much when objects fell back into the plane of the screen, but when they came closer to me, I had less trouble focusing on them, and I was able to feel like the movie was more ‘in my lap’ than when I was just wearing the theater glasses. It wasn’t a huge difference, but it was enough that I noticed it without thinking about it.

The Oakleys are also much more comfortable. I’m not a fan of the Gascan style, but I only wore them in a dark theater, so who cares what I look like wearing them. But I never felt fatigue in my nose or ears, or felt like I needed to take them off to give my eyes a rest.

The downside? The movie was still darker than I would have liked. This is probably the nature of the 3D technology, so either theaters can pump up the brightness to searingly high levels, or we can just live with this effect. I saw no difference in brightness between the Oakleys and the theater glasses.

The other downside? Did I mention that they cost $150? Or $120 if you don’t love Tron? While the Oakley glasses were certainly higher quality, I don’t think that most people would find the cost worth the subtle improvements. If everyone had these glasses, would Avatar have made more money? No, the movie was great without dropping a Benjamin on eye wear. I think most people will be satisfied with the theater glasses, or at least as satisfied as they can be, given the sorry state of 3D movies.

If you’re a discerning movie watcher, and you see even half as many 3D movies as I do, you might be interested. If the money isn’t an issue for you? Well, go buy a really big 3D set and watch movies with the active shutter glasses, which are much better looking than even the theater experience. Eventually, TVs, and perhaps even movie theaters, will go to glasses-less 3D, so you have to ask yourself how many movies you’ll watch with these glasses on. 10? 20? That’s almost the equivalent of doubling the ticket price just to have better 3D glasses.

I’m going to keep them. I liked the experience, and I can justify them as a work expense, since I write movie reviews for this column. Plus, my 30-day return period ends after Tron: Legacy is released, so I’ll get to be the ultimate dork wearing Tron 3D glasses to see Tron. It’s like wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see in concert, but much more expensive.

So, how was Megamind? Pretty good, actually. It wasn’t the Incredibles, one of my favorite movies of all time, but it was surprisingly original. It wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but I had a few chuckles, and the story was much better than I expected. The movie looked great, and the 3D effects did add some depth to the experience. I’d recommend it without reservation. The glasses? That’s a much harder choice.

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