Progressive enhancement & Disney’s Bolt 3D

Bolt (film)
Image via Wikipedia

When creating a product, do you design for your power users and figure out a way to scale down to the larger, less sophisticated audience?  Or maybe is it best to build for the masses and figure out how to upgrade to satisfy your more gung ho constiutiants?  A third option still is to build separate experiences for each group, but that costs more.

What do you do?

My annual Walt Disney World pilgramage this year included a trip on the Disney Cruise Line and much to the delight of my 7 year old daughter, we not only got to see High School Musical 3 again as part of the package, but we also got to see Bolt in a state-of-the art, crystal clear Disney Digital 3D theater.  Some things I saw during that 3D showing made me think that the movie industry is facing these exact choices these days as they try to distinguish the traditional theater experience from what you might have at home while they struggle with inconsistant equipment quality.  Maybe your industry is too.

In my world of web design we run into this all the time since we typically have to consider two customer interaction extremes.  People accessing a web site from a computer using a Javascript enabled browser can have a very interactive experience using AJAX.  Mobile devices, however, inconsistantly implement Javascript so a heavy AJAX experience simply doesn’t work.  

Do you start with the browser experience and “gracefully degrade” it, start with the mobile users and “progressively enhance” it for the browser (like Wikipedia), or do you build two (like Gmail)?  For web design, there is a good article on this topic by Tommy Olsen entitled Graceful Degradation & Progressive Enhancement that lays out all the issues nicely as well as some tips for dealing with the two approaches.

But movies are having to deal with this issue too and they actually have before.  When TV gained popularity in the 1940s and 50s,  the movie industry started using wider picture formats (which ironically then had to be gradefully degraded using “pan and scan” or letterbox techniques for viewing on TV) and experimenting with 3D effects.  As home theater has improved and become more pervasive, the movie industry has had to give consumers a reason to leave the house and come buy $30 popcorn at the local cineplex.

Enter Disney Digital 3D, which appears to be borrowing from lessons learned at Disney theme park shows like Captain EO and Honey, I Shrunk the Audience.  Unlike decades earlier versions with green and red lensed glasses, Disney’s modern 3D movie technology uses polarized lenses that doesn’t alter the picture color or quality.   The digital images are crisp, clear, and definitely add to the experience in a way you cannot currently get at home.

Since we saw Bolt 3D in a Disney owned theater, we saw the exact experience they wanted us to see since they had control over the equipment used.  We happened to see Bolt only a few weeks earlier in a theater near our home prior to seeing it on the cruise for free, so it was easy to make comparisons.  The opening action sequence where Bolt and his owner are in their TV show land chasing down bad guys in a canine version of a Bond film opening was especially specacular.  

But, if you look close, you can tell they were in progressive enhancement mode when making this film.  A majority of theaters do not have the equipment to let audiences see a film like this the way we did.  In fact, when we saw it in our local theater, it wasn’t even digital meaning that when it comes out on DVD we will be able to have better picture quality on our home HD TV than what we saw in the original theatrical run.

So when you look close at the 3D version and notice that not all of the pieces of the sports car chasing down Bolt render in three dimensions quite correctly or that some of the backgrounds don’t fade with the right perspective, it is easy to understand why.  Disney likely produced Bolt with its widest audience in mind, theaters worldwide without digital 3D capability, and progressively enhanced the film for those that did.  Only an extremely nerdy eye like mine would even think to look for mistakes in that enhancement, where they omit some of the details undoubtedly for cost reasons.

Just like in my web world where eventually mobile devices will fully and consistantly support Javascript, it is not difficult to forsee a world where every local movie theater can support Digital 3D and the original runs will have to be gracefully degraded for home DVD sales.  Those days are not here now, though, and in the meantime figuring out a way to cater to both cineplex audiences continues.

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