A D Too Far

A good pair of binoculars is as essential to those wanting to identify trees or their lichens as to twitchers.

My old but trusted pair of Leica ‘Red Spots’ deliver remarkable clarity even in low light, and when properly adjusted preserve the illusion of depth. Three-dimensional or binocular vision is another of those mundane but invaluable and enriching features of being human.

Try as I might, I cannot convince myself that is why the movie or any other industry is so keen to sell us 3D products.

Faced with falling theatre attendances in the 1950s, widescreen movies were pushed as the new ultra-real experience that TV could not replicate. Despite progressively extreme formats culminating in IMAX, we later emptied the stores of widescreen TVs, and scaled up from quite passable DVDs to high definition format in the home.

The dwindling few who continued to pay at the box office, forbidden from carrying bags and sometimes frisked in increasingly desperate moves to combat piracy, were promised the ultimate beyond even Ultra Panavision: real 3D movies, which curiously had also been tried and failed in the 1950s.

Here at last, or once again, is the movie format that cannot be pirated by concealed camcorders, indeed cannot be emulated in the home without loads of costly kit. At last the multiplexes will be heaving with delirious crowds, drawn to this spectacle.

Binocular vision is a delicate sense. Not everyone who watches 3D movies, even in ideal conditions, is tricked into thinking that the image has depth (estimates are that over 10% of viewers never ‘get’ such 3D), and some experience motion illness similar to that encountered in VR immersion environments.

There have been ‘health warnings’ that younger children, under the age of 6 or 7, are a cause for concern, probably mainly with 3D displays that are closer to the eyes than a movie theatre’s screen. It is hard to know how seriously to take these.

Given the geometry of vision, generating an effective and enjoyable 3D illusion on a screen only a metre or two in front of the eyes is inevitably more difficult. Yet several manufacturers are already only too keen to take our money in exchange for 3D TVs and computer displays. Presumably those vendors have no commercial interest in movie theatres, and reckon to convince us that their home cinema systems can do 3D as well as movie theatres.

If anyone is going to sell more than a few thousand 3D computer displays to the movie industry and those too addicted to new technology, and start connecting them to millions of workstations, they will need good cause. I presume that they must have come up with a compelling human interface that requires a 3D display, and which will not pass into history when Oculus launches its VR headset in 2016.

On the other hand, as many of us work for long hours in front of our displays, fatigue only increasing the proportion of users who cannot cope with 3D, it must also have a compelling human interface that does not require a 3D display. Perhaps the answer is in another hardware DRM system that automatically charges us sufficient to keep the various industries afloat long enough to come up with their next ingenious money-making scheme.

Current 3D movies are a throwback to the old cinema of spectacle, first mastered by the Lumière brothers and travelling showmen. As authorities like Mark Kermode have made clear, well-made and well-shot narrative movies already excel in almost all the visual techniques that make up human 3D vision.

I will stick to those movies, conventional Mac displays, and my old Red Spots, thank you.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 27 issue 05, 2011. Apparently, after some almost impressive sales of 3D TVs in 2012, the number of people viewing 3D TV is in steep decline, and many channels which were launched to deliver 3D content have shut. Now there’s a surprise.