3D: Don’t try this at home!

August 5, 2010: Melbourne was witness to a quite superior, extremely realistic demonstration of 3D entertainment in July.

It was as if the actors could have walked right out of the set and sat in the next seat! The impression of dimensional depth, highlighted by some artful lighting, was almost indistinguishable from reality – but in some ways what we saw was strangely ‘larger than life’.

Special effects were integrated brilliantly into the 3D format and subjects moved from the front of the frame to the rear seamlessly. Challenging issues like depth of field and perspective were handled superbly. In my opinion, it was far more convincing than Avatar, which many pundits have judged the high water mark in 3D entertainment thus far.

The presentation was a staging of Shakespeare’s play, A Comedy of Errors at The Athenaeum Theatre, and it was a hoot. (Better plot than Avatar, too!)

– Seriously, what’s the current enthusiasm for mimicking reality with its distinctly inferior technological surrogate? It recalls an early Michael Leunig cartoon where a man is watching a sunset on TV, while outside, through his window, the sun is setting. Is it just me, or are there others out there slightly sceptical that the latest techno-thrill ride ain’t going to deliver the bacon?

(While putting this piece together I discovered there was at least one other curmudgeonly dissenter out there:

‘Like the first blowfly of summer,’ opined Terry Lane in The Age ‘Green Guide’ in July, ‘three-dimensional photography comes around with monotonous regularity to disturb our domestic tranquility and then disappears, leaving behind a trace of disappointment.’)

Having (like Mr Lane) been taken through several recent demonstrations of 3D technology by consumer electronics companies, it’s undeniable that the initial impact is mighty impressive. That goes on for about five minutes. Like a thrill ride, it’s best as an occasional experience. And also like a thrill ride, it tends to make some of us want to throw up – but more of that later…

3D (aka ‘stereoscopy’) has been around since the early decades of the 19th century. Unlike really useful technology such as, say, the motor vehicle or the telephone, it hasn’t tracked a path of continuous development. It’s episodic re-emergence gives it more in common with the hoola hoop or the yo-yo.

3D movies had a golden run in the 1950s, beginning with the release of the first colour stereoscopic feature film, Bwana Devil. To a large extent this was a response by Hollywood to the box office threat posed by television. It had another major trundle around the block in the ’80s. Another 30 years on and here we are again.

The Third Dimension’s last major iteration in still image capture was also in the ’80s, in the form of the 4-lens Nimslo camera, with prints based on lenticular technology. Four images of the same scene were captured at slightly different angles on film. They were then combined onto the same print and covered with a lenticular (microlens) surface to produce the illusion of depth. Like Looney Tunes Tazos from a packet of Twisties.

Nimslo went broke in a few short years as, even though the industry was awfully excited about 3D photography, it just didn’t catch on with the punters.
Just like a Looney Tunes Tazo, the results weren’t all that gob-smacking, and the high cost and inconvenience of developing film and making lenticular prints (the film had to be sent to the US) dampened any initial enthusiasm.

…The industry was excited because at the time it was scratching around for the Next Big Thing. The decade before had been something of a golden age for consumer photography, with the first inexpensive 35mm compact cameras introduced in the late ’70s. Year on year they just got better and cheaper, with features like zoom lenses, autofocus and autoexposure progressively introduced to give consumers reason to upgrade to the latest model.

But then the flood of new features and benefits flowing from the technology pipeline dried up, and there was nothing for it than to once again dust off The Most Exciting Development in Consumer Photography Since The Box Brownie.

It could be argued that we have arrived at a similar position now with consumer digital cameras. In around 10 years we have moved from pretty fuzzy 1.2 megapixel images out of $1000+ cameras the size of a small toaster, to the latest palm-sized HD-video shooting, image stabilised 15x zooming, high resolving, auto-everything-ing marvels. The cameras are so good it is going to become increasingly difficult for retailers to persuade consumers to upgrade.

Fujifilm has gone out on a limb with it’s ‘son of Nimslo’, the 3D W1. It uses two lenses to direct the image onto two 10 megapixel CCD chips. The resulting data is processed to create a picture that appears three-dimensional when displayed on a suitable screen or printed on lenticular lens-covered prints. It also shoots VGA resolution video in 3D.

The camera is priced at around $800 and the viewer another $700. If you want prints, you need to send off files to the US where two sizes are offered: 6 x 4 inches and 7 x 5 inches, which will cost around $7 – 10 per print plus postage. Some development paths are cul-de-sacs – and this looks like one of them. Japanese tech site Akihabara News reviewed the W1 as ‘The Worst Camera Ever Made’. Has anyone out there sold one?

Sony is current ly touting ‘3D Panorama’ capabilities on some of its new releases. An ingenious adaptation of Sony’s proprietary Panoramic Sweep technology, you press the shutter button once, pan across a scene, and the camera stitches together a panoramic image that can be viewed in 3D.

In the 3D Sweep Panorama mode, the camera calculates what a dual-lens system would capture at different points in the scene and creates a similar composite image. The only way to obtain the proper 3D effect is by viewing the images on a 3D-capable Sony Bravia HDTV while wearing the company’s $150+ Active Shutter 3D glasses.

Panasonic just last week announced a 3D lense for its interchangeable lens compacts.

So The Future of Photography/Cinematography/Television/Home Entertainment/Gaming/insert appropriate category here is with us once again. Will it once again be folded up and put back in its box after a year or two as the marketing-generated excitement proves uncontagious among the general public? Reports from the US are that while Avatar was indeed a box office blockbuster, each of the 3D feature films released since then has taken progressively less…

You’ll go blind!

…And now it emerges that 3D needs to carry a health warning.

Sony is the latest in a series of corporations to issues warnings about its 3D technology:

‘Some people may experience discomfort (such as eye strain, eye fatigue or nausea) while watching 3D video images or playing stereoscopic 3D games on 3D televisions. If you experience such discomfort, you should immediately discontinue use of your television until the discomfort subsides.

‘SCEA (Sony) recommends that all viewers take regular breaks while watching 3D video or playing stereoscopic 3D games. The length and frequency of necessary breaks may vary from person to person. Please take breaks that are long enough to allow any feelings of discomfort to subside. If symptoms persist, consult a doctor.

‘The vision of young children (especially those under six years old) is still under development. SCEA recommends that you consult your doctor (such as a pediatrician or eye doctor) before allowing young children to watch 3D video images or play stereoscopic 3D games. Adults should supervise young children to ensure they follow the recommendations listed above.

Nintendo of America has issued a similar warning, as has Samsung.

Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime said the company ‘will recommend that very young children not look at 3D images, because…the muscles for the eyes are not fully formed…’

Mark Pesce, a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, is leading the campaign against 3D in the home.

In the 1990s he worked with Sega to develop a virtual reality ‘helmet’ which displayed 3D images. Prior to launching the much-heralded Sega VR system, lab testing indicated that long-term exposure to the parallax effect behind 3D imagery can cause a depth perception disorder called ‘binocular dysphoria’. Pesce says that this can be permanent and children, whose brains are still developing, are at particular risk. The Sega VR project was shelved.

Pesce explains that there are something like 10 cues the human brain uses to determine how far away something exactly is, and parallax is just one of them. So when viewing a 3D image, the brain is fighting against itself, ignoring the other depth perception cues. This is why people feel a bit discombobulated when they take those 3D glasses off.

‘It’s got some cues to give a sense of depth, but it’s missing others. Eventually your brain just starts to ignore the other cues,’ he wrote in the ABC website, The Drum.

‘That’s the problem. When the movie’s over, and you take your glasses off, your brain is still ignoring all those depth perception cues, which is when there’s a danger of permanent loss of depth perception.’

This is not an issue when watching the occasional eye-popping 90-minute 3D feature film, he noted, ‘but it does matter hugely if it’s something you’ll be exposed to for hours a day, every day, via your television set. Your brain is likely to become so confused about depth cues that you’ll be suffering from a persistent form of binocular dysphoria.’

He concluded that, ‘One of two things is about to happen: either 3D television will quickly and quietly disappear from the market, from product announcements, and from broadcast plans, or we’ll soon see the biggest class-action lawsuit in the planet’s history, as millions of children around the world realize that their televisions permanently ruined their depth perception.

‘Let’s hope 3D in the home dies a quiet death.’

…Having said that

For a superior form of 3D still imaging, check out http://www.timesplice.com.au.

Melbourne-based professional photographer, cinematographer and inventor Mark Ruff has developed a unique 5-camera 3D stills photography system which produces impressive 3D portraits. Photo Counter reported on Timesplice earlier this year.

(Ruff featured a framed portrait of Jeff Kennett during the photo industry’s Digital Life exhibition in July in which the ex-Premier’s jowls seemed to follow you across the room. Spooky.)

He is currently working on a 10-camera rig.


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