Hollywood's new fascination with three-dimensional movies, television and games has companies eyeing new business opportunities that extend far beyond any movie studio's gate.
All that new entertainment, from the Oscar-nominated Avatar to upgraded TVs, requires new eyewear which in turn uses injection molded and thermoformed frames, polarized film, polycarbonate lenses and other plastics.
The history of 3-D goes back to the 1950s, said Paul Caramagna, general manager of US Polarizer LLC, part of a startup company to make glasses for 3-D films. It's always been short-lived in the past, but then somebody gets a new idea and they start to release it again.
This is probably the fourth iteration of 3-D movies. This one looks like it's sticking because there are a lot of people investing a lot of money in it.
While critics may debate the quality of 3-D films, the public has been taken with them, increasing the demand both for theaters showing them and the glasses to view them with.
RealD Inc. of Los Angeles, which supplies both projection technology and one-use glasses with an estimated 200 million of its glasses used so far said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that demand for 3-D was so heavy between April and late June that it exhausted its stock of glasses. The company had to pay out between $3.5 million and $5 million in expedited production and shipping costs to ensure theaters had enough glasses, and it expected to spend up to another $2 million by the end of September just to speed delivery, beyond the normal production costs.
The burgeoning industry has ditched the cardboard frames and red and green film lenses that were the symbol of 3-D kitsch novelty in the past in favor of plastic frames that house one of two types of glasses passive ones with a polarized lens or active glasses with computerized shutter technology built into them. Both work along with the projection system to trick the eye and the brain into seeing three dimensions.
Passive glasses are the ones typically used in movie theaters, with injection molded frames and a polarized film. In North America, they're typically only used once because most theaters lack the commercial washer needed to sanitize frames for repeat use.
US Polarizer of Marlborough, Mass., was already making multilayer film used in a variety of industries. This year, it created sister company 3-D Glasses Global LLC to begin injection molding frames from recycled polypropylene and assembling the glasses using US Polarizer's film, Caramagna said. It employs about 24 at its Shamokin, Penn., molding plant and hopes to grow to 100 employees.
This is a global demand, he said. Three-D isn't unique to the U.S. or to Canada.
Major 3-D system suppliers like RealD and its major competitor MasterImage of Seoul, South Korea, also supply glasses as well as leasing the projection equipment to theaters.
RealD became the first 3-D specialist to go public when it began selling shares July 16. It said in its SEC filing that it contracts with manufacturers globally to mold and assemble glasses.
But those one-use glasses are not the only choice. Marchon Eyewear of Melville, N.Y., already a global supplier of regular eyeglasses with manufacturing in Asia and Europe, purchased San Diego-based technology company MicroVision Optical in July to create Marchon3D. The new company will mold and market stylish glasses with a thermoformed thermoplastic lens that allows the 3-D glasses to double as sunglasses. Typically the frames are plastic, which suits the technology's requirements better. Marchon also will work with eye doctors to provide prescription glasses.
The glasses are more than just fashionable, said Marchon3D President David Johnson. The better fit ensures a better viewing experience at the theater.
In spite of all the advancements in technology, the most important thing for the 3-D experience is what the consumer sees, said Jim Pritts, chief technology officer for Marchon3D. A better-made, better-fitting pair of glasses makes a big difference.
As 3-D expands to the home market, however, technology may require different glasses.
So far, the 3-D televisions that have been introduced work with active glasses. Active glasses also are housed in plastic frames, but rather than polarized lenses, they contain a computer-controlled shutter mechanism called a liquid-crystal cell that opens and closes at rapid speeds to trick the eye and brain into seeing more than the TV screen. Active glasses also are used in many theaters in Asia and Europe.
The gravitation to 3-D TV in the home makes things much more interesting, Caramagna said.
It has also been expensive. Beyond the price of the TV starting at $1,700 and climbing to nearly $7,000 the active glasses needed to view the 3-D image cost $100 or more and are housed in plastic frames. Glasses made for one TV brand have not been compatible with another brand's set.
We are in a new era for 3-D display technology, said Maria Costeira, CEO of 3-D active glasses maker XpanD of Los Angeles. The X103 glasses will have a profound impact on the growing adoption of 3-D in consumer applications, Costeira said in a news release.
But systems with passive 3-D technology are nearing the market now, and that should change the public's view for home use, said Johnson of Marchon3D.
People looked at us as if we were kind of crazy for getting into this business, he said. They said who's going to even want to watch 3-D movies? Who's going to want to wear those glasses? Now all the milestones that seemed slow in coming have begun to happen. It's real.