3D passive unrealities

Segment of the circular slide device

3D is moving in. Nintendo has released its 3DS hand-held game system: “no need for special glasses.” Titanic is being retro-fitted as a 3D movie. 3D cinema reminds me, if I ever needed reminding, of the symmetries of the human body, and hence of our whole perceptual apparatus (ie all the senses). Philosopher Mark Johnson emphasises the primary importance of the axis of the human body about which our world is balanced. Left-right, bipolarity, opposites, equals, dichotomies, equilibrium: our perceptual, linguistic and cognitive life is saturated with references to bilateral symmetry that begins with the human body.

Segment of the circular slide deviceThis symmetry is no less evident than in the fact that animals have two eyes. Eyes are crucial in the story of evolution. Darwin used the physiology of the eye to anticipate people’s objections to his theory of natural selection.

Can we believe that natural selection could produce, on the one hand, an organ of trifling importance, such as the tail of a giraffe, which serves as a fly-flapper, and, on the other hand, an organ so wonderful as the eye?

The theory of evolution depends on small incremental changes providing some survival advantage across species populations. What’s the point of a creature having something like half an eye, and how is another animal with a bit more than half an eye able to out-survive it?

The evolution of binocular vision provides a good example of how incremental advantage works. In biological terms bilateral symmetry is relatively economical to produce and reproduce. An eye on either side of the body is better than one central eye. Two such eyes provide the possibility for panoramic vision, as is the case for many bird species. For animals that are inclined to jump around in trees (primates), and nocturnal animals (eg possums and owls), there are advantages if the field of view of the two eyes overlap.

The near complete overlap of the field of vision of humans, nocturnal animals and beasts of prey means that the animal sees two slightly different views (from two eye positions) of the same scene. There’s a geometrical logic to the differences between these two images which provides cues as to the distance of objects from the viewer: the distance to a branch, prey or a foe. There’s also the potential for the scene to appear brighter, sharper and carry greater contrast (Heesy, 2007). In certain environments the greater the incremental overlap, in conjunction with an ability to adjust the convergence of the lines of sight of the two eyes, and the more forward-facing the eyes, the greater the chances of judging the distance of a branch or getting a meal.

So we sit in 3D cinemas as tree-swinging primates or birds of prey, but fixed binocularly to flickering light patterns across a flat screen. There is much that is missing from the experience, not least the ability to move our heads from side-to-side so that we can see around objects. There are also the constraints of fixed focal depth, and the lack of convergence, ie the eyes will always look straight ahead even if the screen stereopsis presents an object as just a couple of metres away. In the cinema, for the 3D effect to be convincing, we have to be sitting down, passive, inert, aligned, and oblivious to the artifice.

Given these constraints we couldn’t survive in a world of fake 3D. But as for all images, that is part of the appeal of 3D cinema, not its resemblance to being there, but its passively absorbed unreality.

I’m reminded of my early experience with ViewMaster stereoscopic slides. You would insert a cardboard disk around which were positioned 14 images. Through the viewfinder you would experience 7 miniature 3D tableaux, rigid mountain scenes that wouldn’t yield to any amount of shaking. Nor was it anything like being there, but all the more entertaining because of it.


  • Darwin, Charles. 1996. The Origin of Species. Oxford: Oxford University Press. First published in 1859.
  • Dawkins, Richard. 1996. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. New York: Norton.
  • Gibson, James J. 1950. The Perception of the Visual World. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.
  • Heesy, Christopher P. 2009. Seeing in stereo: The ecology and evolution of primate binocular vision and stereopsis. Evolutionary Anthropology, (18)21-35.
  • Johnson, Mark. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Critics of evolution ask how could such a complicated organ as the eye with so many parts evolve incrementally? What is the point of a creature having half an eye? In several books defending the theory of evolution the biologist Richard Dawkins traces the logic of eye evolution as an incremental process: specialised skin cells that detect changes in light value provide a survival advantage over no light sensitivity at all, light gets concentrated by a pinhole opening across a curved light sensitive surface, a lens-shaped translucent membrane is better than a pinhole, clearer vision is better than slightly blurry vision, etc.


  1. ddmyun says:

    The Titanic reminds me James Cameron’s another movie- Avatar, which definitely progressed 3D technology into a new era. 3D movie is so popular that one of my classmates even made a 3D short film as a final project when I was in college. I was shocked that retro-fit the Titanic would cost eighteen million dollars. Because even my friend can do this with little budget!

    What’s the difference between Cameron’s two 3D movies? More specifically, is a film that was converted from 2D to 3D can bring the same visual experience as a film that was actually shot by 3D camera? Even Cameron himself said the retro-fitted Titanic will be 2.99D instead of real 3D. http://www.wired.com/underwire/2011/10/james-cameron-titanic-3-d/

    I’ve been disappointed so many times by failed fake 3D movies (Alice in Wonderland, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). According to the interview in Exclusive: James Cameron: Titanic 3D conversion is mind numbing, I believe that Cameron is pushing another method of 3D movie production to the acme, and I do think he will make it.

    In comparison of two methods of 3D moviemaking, I personally prefer Avatar -Stereoscopic 3D camera captured the real performance of actor (trace points on body) and translates it into CGI character. It is more real, which means more possibilities. What if the computer calculation process technology is advanced enough so that the computer could capture all the movements of characters and audience’s head, and translate them to personal 3D movie in real-time?

  2. ddmAyumi says:

    The success of Avatar implies a rise of commercialization of the high technology to create such realistic 3D images, and the extensive outspread of 3D media technologies to the masses. Most people seemed to have been immensely impressed not only by the plot of the film, but also by its distinct 3D effects. However, we might consider if what we have experienced with Avater was totally new. Also, it maybe worth asking if the current supposed rise of 3D media trend would last for long.

    I claim that today’s 3D media technologies are not something that just emerged out of nowhere, but they extended from a lineage of human’s fascination in expressing 3D world onto 2D surfaces.
    Artists have attempted to express how humans perceive space in 2D space since the earliest times. A technique of perspective could be even inspected, for example, from the cave paintings at Lascaux, where the horse in the foreground is painted larger with details and the horse appearing in the background is smaller and vague. (http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/index.php?fichier=02_02_00_04.xml). Artists have used perspective and shadings in the frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries of Pompeii (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Villa_of_the_Mysteries). Works of Baldassarre Peruzzi of Sala delle Prospettive, is famous for creating an illusion of architectural space (http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Peruzzi_Sala_delle_Prospettive,_Villa_Farnesina,_Rome_04.jpg). When we appreciate Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_Lilies#Gallery), we do not usually just recognize the image of the painting as flat, but we shall imagine the space that surrounds the lilies, and distance between the pond and the reflections, visualizing the depth in 2D surface.
    Furthermore, Inventions of stereoscopic TV and sensorama machines in the 1960s were not something new at all. I believe that they are also components of this entire approach to express 3D image on 2D surfaces.

    However, regarding the recent 3D image projection, as those of 3D cinema, there are some factors that we cannot perceive naturally; factors that the years of evolution did not prepare us for.
    I found H. Thwaites’s studies of human’s visual physiology very interesting:

    1. Occurrence of 3D overkill – When numerous cues for the human eye to obtain the 3D vision continuously appear, the brain would be surpassed by the excessive information that it has to process. Then the viewers give up the cognizance the notion of 3D, and only perceive the image as 2D.
    2. Viewers are adapted to recognize 3D space from a 2D image, as in former TV and film. Therefore, occasionally, viewers would experience a rejection reaction against 3D images. This is because human has developed a very firm and durable perceptual stereotype over years or decades, which is not easily changed (Thwaites 2011).

    What we can inspect from these studies is that as new technologies commence, studies would progress along (and vice versa). I believe that the role of the widespread of 3D cinema is not only about entertainment, but unfolds some factors of the human vision mechanism that has not yet been revealed.
    Hence, I would say that the current vogue of 3D media is not a trend, but we are the era of the major progress of 3D media technologies. As Yun mentioned in the former post, I was also disappointed with the 3D movies, mainly with the overall uneasiness from its constraints over our physical freedom. However, I believe that there lies a bright future ahead. As 3D media become more exposed to the masses, more would be involved in 3D media, which leads to acceleration of development in 3D technologies and studies.

  3. Xi Ge says:

    We live in a 3D world, but the 3D movies are just so unreal. Of course it at least partially results from the theme of those movies and formal aspects, as special attractions override everything else. People go to the cinema to watch those movies in search for the feeling of being ‘astonished’ or ‘thrilled’, yet come out the cinema complaining the effect fails to make them feel ‘real’. Does something ‘real’ provide people with the strongest excitement? The attempt to create a real sense environment in a cinema can be tricky. With this intention to make audience feel they are “included” or “situated’ in the environment in the film, the self-inclusiveness or completeness of the big screen is jeopardized. In a 2D media like painting, the sense of space starts in the picture and goes towards the horizon which is still within the picture. However, for 3D movies, it tries to create the illusion that the sense of space starts just in front of our eyes (like in our real life), but it can only starts in the big screen. There will always be a spacial distance between the world audience are in and the one the story happens, which, to me, may compromise the sense of real. In terms of 3D hand-held games, the problem of scale will also affect the final effect the 3D world it provides. I kind of wonder what is the purpose to embrace 3D with so much passion. To imitate what we can experience in real life to the extreme? Referring to the history of recording devices from painting, to photography, to motion picture and now to 3D, this may be the curiosity inherent in human nature. There is still a long way to go towards that end. I found H. Thwaites’ studies mentioned in the previous comment interesting. Improvement of current technology cannot be achieved without more in-depth understanding of biological mechanism of perception.

  4. Lida Huang says:

    I’m going to talk about 3D and movie. Basically speaking, 3D is supposed to be more realistic than 2D but too realistic may goes to opposite effect. When I was watching the 2D movie produced by Disney I can sense a very subtle romantic and imaginative appreciation instead of 3D movie. In my opinion, 3D movie leaves little imagination for spectators and forces spectator focus on the plot and how reality the scene in subconscious way. Considering why 3D was born, isn’t it for more realistic? So I think the significant of 3D is fixed, just for reality. Therefore 3D should be carefully used in movie. Some movie like Star Wars, The Matrix, those high-tech fiction film, will be accented with 3D technology. But normally film such as drama there is no need to use such heavy-handed effect and raise the cost of producing. Some romantic film (I haven’t thought up which film to exemplify) may be totally unsuitable for 3D type. Especially animation, I bet people wouldn’t feel anything good about some 3D animation, such as Fly Me to the Moon, which is just a 3D animation with nothing special.

    I am convinced of an old saying: distance generates beauty. Another saying is ‘less is more’. 3D movie do the best to give people the reality, shorten the distance, try to show everything in the scene, sometime may distort the original good (Here I emphasis ‘sometimes’, because I approve 3D objectively), especially good-quality 3D movie need very professional technology which is beyond most producers’ level. As a similarity, we sometimes feel that, black and white photos and single hue photos are beautiful and accented, whereas the feeling is inexistent on colorful photos. That’s exactly what I feel on 3D movie.

    After the bit hit recent years, 3D should find the right place in movie production. It can be a tool, but won’t chance the essential standard to judge whether a movie is attractive. Admittedly, the warm welcome and nice comments from spectators (I prefer spectator than audiences for the occasion people stay in when watching 3D movie is much like watching physical world) is a powerful prove for its bright future. But the boom has mixed many stunts and bubbles, it also depend on the fresh feeling and curiosity of spectators. Once spectators’’ sense of appreciation get tied, there may come severe comments and indifferent altitude instead of a big following.

  5. Peiyu Chiang says:

    To me, it does less enjoyable to see a 3D movie on a fixed flat screen, and also, less realistic. I have been thinking that, is it possible to invent eye contact lens that can make a film more realistic? However, it seems that there’s too many practical problems needed to be solved. I think, instead of a boring screen, to build a horizon curve screen with 160 degree is much better, and realistic to the audience. But, it’s not necessary to build a screen as big as we see in an IMAX theatre because that’s too costly for entertainment. Due to the fact that 3D movie’s becoming a trend over the world, how to make a 3D movie more realistic, and affordable for common people is a problem that movie industry should solve.

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