Apple’s WWDC 2023 event was packed with product announcements, with new MacBook Air and Mac Studio computers leading the charge, followed by new software updates for everything from Mac OS to the Apple Watch and Apple TV 4K.
But the main event for Apple fans – that famous one more thing – was the Apple Vision Pro, a $3,499 AR headset that uses a 3D user interface to blend a virtual computing environment with the real world just beyond the wearer’s direct field of vision. The Vision Pro is essentially a head-mounted computer, but watching Apple’s announcement for it on the company’s YouTube channel, it occurred to me that it’s also the next opportunity for a 3D TV revival.
After rising to prominence in the 2010s, 3D TVs just as quickly disappeared from the market as consumers became disenchanted with the format. And who could blame them? On the movie front, 3D got off to a blazing start with Avatar, which was made available for viewing at home on Blu-ray 3D, a format that most of the best 4k Blu-ray players still support.
But the movie industry never followed up on the 3D promise of the technically distinguished Avatar, with many releases that followed simply using a 3D master created using a simple upconversion of the 2D original. Between a lack of compelling content and the physical clunkiness of having to wear glasses both at the theater and at home (with the added annoyance of home 3D glasses having built-in batteries that needed to be regularly recharged), 3D TVs waned in popularity and companies soon stopped making them altogether.
Not that 3D at home disappeared entirely. A good number of the best 4K projectors provide 3D support (glasses optional), and Blu-ray 3D discs also continue to trickle out even to this present day. But I had nearly forgotten about 3D… until I saw Avatar: The Way of Water in a theater, in 3D. What an experience!
Apple Vision Pro: the start of a 3D movie revival?
A great feature of the new Apple Vision Pro for movie fans is Cinema Environment. When watching movies using Apple's headset, this will block out other elements in the interface and basically dim the lights for movie time. The Vision Pro also supports Spatial Audio, letting users take advantage of that feature when using AirPods Pro 2 or other compatible headphones or earbuds.
I’d previously complained about how the digital release of Avatar: The Way of Water, which also just arrived on Disney Plus, wouldn't have advanced features such as high frame rate video or 3D that made it such a special experience in the theater. But Apple’s presentation showed The Way of Water being screened in 3D on the Vision Pro, which supports movie playback in that format. Not just that, but the presentation was made by Disney CEO Bob Iger, who announced that Disney Plus would be available on the Vision Pro from day one.
Does Apple’s tight relationship with Disney mean future high-profile releases from that studio such as Marvel movies and Star Wars-related series will also be in 3D on the Vision Pro? Well, why not? 3D imaging technology is baked in there, and Apple’s new platform makes heavy use of it.
And even if we do get a repeat of the 3D movies boom and bust of the 2010s on the Vision Pro, with Avatar: The Way of Water being the only release to have a significant impact, then at least users can make their own 3D movies. That’s right: among its many other uses, Apple’s AR headset is also a 3D camera, with users having the ability to shoot 3D video and share it with other Vision Pro users. Maybe, just maybe, that will end up being the killer app for 3D TV.
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Al Griffin has been writing about and reviewing A/V tech since the days LaserDiscs roamed the earth, and was previously the editor of Sound & Vision magazine.
When not reviewing the latest and greatest gear or watching movies at home, he can usually be found out and about on a bike.