3D – the Next Dimension

Current stereoscopic displays are only the first step into true 3D viewing, we look at the future of 3D

Back in December 2009 the blockbuster Avatar was heralded as the biggest thing for the film industry since colour was introduced almost a hundred years before. From now on, it was claimed, the movie-going experience would be one of unprecedented levels of realism thanks to 3D technology. It wouldn’t end with the cinema either. Thanks to 3D TVs, 3D cameras, 3D computer displays and 3D games consoles, the world of flat, boring images would become a thing of the past as the world on our screens became ever closer to the real three-dimensional world we inhabit.

Sadly, all that hype hasn’t translated to reality. Sales of home 3D kit have been steady, but hardly stellar. Interest is still high, with many visitors to our recent consumer intrigued by the 3D demos. However, the vast majority haven't yet voted with their wallets.

3D – the Next Dimension

Today’s 3D really isn’t much different from Victorian technology

That 3D is usually available only on more expensive TV models can't have helped. Many new TVs come 3D-ready, but due to the high price of the more common 'active' 3D glasses, manufacturers have largely stopped bundling them as standard to keep the base cost of TVs down; instead making them an optional extra. That's good for consumer choice, but hardly a resounding endorsement of 3D.

Another problem is an on-going lack of content, with few 3D Blu-rays yet released apart from animated movies. 3D TV is growing in the UK, but the vast majority of this content is on top-end subscriber services from Sky. To date only one live sports event has been broadcast for free - the Wimbledon men's final, predictably, on the BBC's HD channel.

So why hasn’t the promise of 3D been fulfilled? Are we just experiencing the teething pains of a new technology or are there more fundamental issues involved? How much depth and immersion are the current 3D technologies providing? Here we investigate what’s wrong with the state of 3D today; and why it causes some users to suffer unpleasant side effects. We'll then go on to explore new products and leading edge research to find out when we’ll get the truly mind-blowing 3D of our dreams.


To understand the state of play today we really need to take a lesson from history. After all, this isn’t the first time that 3D images have become popular. Some of our older readers may remember the popularity of 3D in the cinemas of the early 50s - but even that wasn’t the first 3D craze. The Victorians enjoyed viewing stereoscopic 3D photographs, and since then numerous special cameras have made brief appearances. One of the most notable, and perhaps the most bizarre, was the Nimslo four-lensed 3D camera of the 80s, more on its lenticular technology later. It didn’t catch on though – a recurring theme in the history of 3D.

3D – the Next Dimension

The Nimslo 3D camera, which took 'lenticular' 3D images that could be viewed with the naked eye, but needed a specialist printing process. Picture by John Alan Elson www.3dham.com

Turning from static to computer-generated images, the head-mounted display came to the fore in the 90s. In addition to the third dimension it also promised a totally immersive experience. Much of this so-called virtual reality kit was extremely expensive being aimed, as it was, at professional training, architecture and scientific visualisation. None of this technology made a big splash with consumers due to high costs, and possibly the fact it was a private, singular experience - rather than a group activity like watching TV. So why has 3D been little more than a passing fad in its previous incarnations and will current technology do any better in this respect?

A recent survey presented at the American Psychological Association Convention by Professor Mark Carrier of California State University provides more than an element of doubt. Given that one of the promises of 3D is a greater sense of “being there”, Professor Carrier recruited 400 volunteers who were instructed to watch one of three movies that were available in both 2D and 3D. They were then asked to score their feeling of presence and their emotional involvement, and were also asked questions to see how well they remembered the movie. The survey showed that the 3D experience had no effect on presence, emotional involvement or memory yet it did increase significantly the likelihood of adverse philological effects such as headache and eyestrain.

3D – the Next Dimension

Head-mounted displays provide 3D and an immersive experience but are largely used for niche applications like training

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