Kristina Johnson’s Movie Magic

How the Ohio State president’s 3D innovations changed the silver screen

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
OSU president Kristina Johnson wearing the 3D glasses she helped develop.

To Kristina Johnson, the movie “Avatar” isn’t merely a visually stunning sci-fi epic. It’s also a victory lap. 

Long before she was named Ohio State’s 16th president in June, Johnson was an engineer and inventor studying color polarization. Her innovations paved the way for a new era of 3D movies, a breakthrough pioneered by the 2009 James Cameron blockbuster. Today, RealD 3D, the system she helped build, is the world’s most popular 3D cinema platform. Johnson estimates about 300 movies have used the technology, which, according to RealD’s LinkedIn page, has been installed in movie theaters in 75 countries. In Central Ohio, RealD 3D is available in cinemas operated by the AMC, Marcus and Cinemark chains. 

During a Zoom interview last fall, Johnson talked with Columbus Monthly about her 3D inventions, which helped earn her and her collaborator, Gary Sharp, a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Virginia, alongside the likes of Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs and George Eastman. “I’m going to get a prop, hold on,” she says, speaking from her Bricker Hall office. When she returns to the computer screen, she’s wearing black 3D glasses, as well as a giant grin. 

The glasses are made by RealD, which purchased a company she and Sharp founded, ColorLink, back when Johnson was a University of Colorado electrical and computer engineering professor and Sharp was her student. “We did all their technology development for 3D,” Johnson says. She adds that the RealD system offers a more vibrant, all-encompassing viewing experience, especially when compared with the flimsy red-and-greenish-blue 3D glasses of yore. With the old glasses, red and green colors would often bleed into each other. Thanks to improved color and circular polarization, 

the RealD glasses avoid that issue, as well as the doubled images that often occurred when viewers tilted their heads or looked around the theater. 

In total, Johnson holds more than 100 U.S. and international patents. In addition to her 3D film work, she’s also come up with advancements in television rear projection systems, digital mammograms and faster screenings for pap smears. In a video produced for their 2015 National Inventors Hall of Fame induction, Sharp described her as a motivator and evangelizer. “Kristina Johnson is probably the most energetic person I’ve ever met,” Sharp said in the video. 

Indeed, Johnson’s excitement is palpable as she talks about her innovations. She moves her laptop to showcase a wall where she’s framed three integrated circuits, used in a compact “color sequential system” she helped develop. Then she grabs another invention, something called a “color quad,” a more affordable camera prism, which she created while in Japan trying to sell the color system. Both the quad and the color system were used in rear projectors for several years. “This is so fun; I never get to do this,” Johnson says about discussing her research. 

Does she take special pride in seeing her inventions in action at the movies? “Absolutely,” Johnson says. 

But she also has a message for her fellow 3D pioneer Cameron, with whom she once considered starting a clean energy company: She’s getting tired of waiting for the “Avatar” sequel. “It’s like, c’mon dude,” she says.