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It’s Okay to be Different

By Neil Schneider

I’d like to draw attention to an article put out by Slate titled "The Problem With 3D: It hurts your eyes. Always has, always will.". Written by Daniel Enger, this article is a theoretical summary of why and how stereoscopic 3D content can stress your eyes.

Credit goes to Dr. Jon Peddie for bringing this article to my attention. When I got the link, my first reaction was to go in kicking and screaming, but I will not be doing that today. I’d like to go on record that this is a very well written piece, and unlike the majority of published criticisms against 3D, this is the first article I’ve read that made a concerted effort to find out why 3D is uncomfortable for some people, with the author taking measures to back his position up.

In a nutshell, Engber is taking 3D advocates like Jeffrey Katzenberg to task because he is making big claims that modern digital stereoscopic 3D is nothing like the 3D of the past. In particular, Katzenberg claims that all the problems associated with the 3D of yesteryear are no more, and modern 3D cinema is comfortable 3D cinema.

Mr. Engber knows better, however, and accurately points out that the popular 3D movies of the 50’s were equally based on polarized technologies, and not the uncomfortable red/blue anaglyph glasses mistakenly associated with that era. In fact, the real causes of 3D discomfort have nothing to do with how the images are projected on the screen at all! According to Engber, discomfort is more likely caused by the disparity of our eyes trying to focus on a flat screen, while getting conflicting 3D cues at the same time - a problem which has nothing to do with projection, standards, or distribution.

However, Engber goes too far by making his article a strong blanket statement against 3D. We have to remember that the only reason 3D movies and movie theaters are popping up all over the place is because movie goers are happy to disproportionately spend money for the 3D benefit - even during the current economic downturn. With millions of customers going to 3D movie theaters, the viral damage of a poor 3D experience should have pulled the floor out from under our industry’s feet by now.

That said, Engber’s concerns are real. As time goes on, we will get an accurate measure of what percentage of the population can see S-3D comfortably, and who cannot - and that will gradually be reflected in the availability of 2D and S-3D theaters.

This goes for content too. While there were supposed "gasps" at ShoWest when Michael Bay criticized 3D as potentially being a gimmick, I didn’t lose sleep over this. Like everything else in life, if 3D doesn’t add to a story or create an element that would be sorely missed when gone, it’s a gimmick. I think it’s better to have stories written in 3D, then 3D written in stories. That said, when the industry matures, expect choices between 2D movies and 3D movies for artistic reasons more so than S-3D theater availability.

In contrast, the S-3D video game industry needs to be viewed very differently from the cinema world. Unlike the "one size fits all" limitation that 3D movies have, a video game S-3D experience can be customized according to our personal tastes and comfort right down to the the depth level, and how we want our inside and outside screen effects.

An offshoot of Engber’s article titled "Is 3D DOA?" was recently published on CNET, and written by John Falcone. Unlike Engber’s work, Falcone’s article discussed the eyestrain symptoms without referencing the problems - and faked credibility by referencing Engber’s work.

In this case, Falcone places more of a focus on the video game industry and references NVIDIA’s GeForce 3D Vision. He points to an article that was not written by him, where the stated problems had nothing to do with what Engber had painstakingly researched.

The discomfort the NVIDIA review was talking about had to do with three things. First, turning the depth (separation) to maximum is the equivalent of making the images separate beyond the distance between the reviewer’s eyes (divergence). No 3D gamer would do this voluntarily. Second, the reviewer was not able to aim properly, a problem that could have easily been overcome had the writer activated NVIDIA’s S-3D laser sight feature. Finally, some games had camera angle problems where the depth settings of one scene did not look their best in another. These are all programming and settings issues - not at all what Engber was discussing.

What is the moral of the story? Similar to the way surround sound only works if the listener has two working ears, stereoscopic 3D has similar requirements from the viewer’s eyes. I am pleased that Engber has taken notice of some accurate problems with modern stereoscopic 3D technology, and it is equally important to not treat these observations as a blanket statement impacting the majority of movie goers and video game players. Finally, as we have proven time and time again, stereoscopic 3D cinema in the theater, stereoscopic 3D cinema in the home, and stereoscopic 3D video games are three completely different worlds. It would be a grave error to lump them all in the same category by media and industry alike.

Please share your thoughts in our forums! Do you experience the discomfort Engber researched in his article? Do you think the majority of people get impacted by this, or is the squeaky wheel getting the grease? When is 3D a gimmick, if at all?