Despite nearly-hourly declarations of its imminent demise, 3D (three-dimensional) film and gaming experiences are here to stay. Though the technology is always evolving in new directions, the slow steady progress from “alright” to “oh, that’s genuinely more compelling that the alternative” gives us a chance to see how this stuff works, and why.
1. The Glasses Aren’t Magic, Your Eyes Are
No matter the technology being used, there is one *biological* technology holding it all together. The human eyes and our visual cortex. Humans possess “binocular vision,”which simply means that like most predators, we have forward-facing eyes a standard distance apart from one another. With your eyes as the cameras, your brain has a constant visual feed of two, slightly different perspectives. Our visual cortex combines these signals into a unified perception of depth and distance. A tool-set that was excellent for our ancestors hunting and foraging, and is now the perfect way to see Star Wars battles.
2. The Glasses Are Still *Kinda* Magical
Now that we’ve covered the gooey eyeball and mushy brain hardware needed for our modern 3D to work, we can appreciate just how ingenious 3D eyewear is at hacking into these biological technologies. Truly, the only thing required is two separate images, timed to one another while maintaining a careful parallax (the difference in perspective provided by the average spacing between human eyes).
However, getting these images *to* our eyes using current technology has been a huge challenge. Old, anaglyph films used Red and Blue filters, with corresponding “Left” and “Right” images tinted to one or another, to create a neat, blurry, unreal sort of depth in films. By the time Avatar hit in 2009, optical sciences had advanced to the point where each image could be given its own spot in a polarized filter, which would then seamlessly be separated by sunglasses with the corresponding Left/Right lenses. The experience was less jarring than the Red/Blue tech, but the number of filters required creates frustrating compromises in brightness.
And truly, they are an adaptation to a technology that never intended to be given true depth. A movie screen is designed for “moving pictures,” the kind given depth by motion and shading and perspective, not by being well-suited for delivering the real thing.
3. The Real Thing
Virtual Reality was the gleaming hope and ultimate joke on an entire generation living through the 1990’s. Culture and reality collided with notions of how best to utilize this amazing development….while Moore’s Law ensured they’d all wind up looking pretty silly in just a few years, without getting us any closer to proper VR.
The past few years have delivered it, properly, and the next few will bring it into your homes. And surprisingly, one of the most-accessible uses might very well be the kind of passive, movie experiences we’re still putting on sunglasses to make work in a theater.
Modern VR simply generates two images using a dynamic graphics engine to allow your personal perspective to change in real-time (ok, a bunch of complicated sensors really makes that possible.) No complicated polarizing/active-shutter/color-coded system is needed to combine and then separate the images to a screen and then back to your eyes, brightness isn’t compromised by the clear optics that wrap the image around your field of view, and….most importantly….
You’re already wearing a VR headset. You’re not in a theater on a date with a pair of absurd, Hipster Blues Brothers-esque sunglasses on. You’re having a totally different experiences with different expectations.
In the meantime, try to just enjoy the show. The technology won’t stop improving, but artists are working hard to make every stage matter *somehow.* Unfortunately, no glasses will help you perceive that depth. You’ll have to use that mushy stuff you’ve already got installed.