the 3d wasteland

In 1961, newly elected FCC chairman Newton N. Minow (actual name) famously declared that television was a “vast wasteland”. Minow believed that television had the potential to be something truly great, but then, as now, it was too full of superficial, meaningless garbage and grating, obnoxious advertisements.

Fifty years after Minow’s speech, I couldn’t help but think of him as I toured the exhibition floor of the Penny Arcade Expo and evaluated the plethora of 3D technology on display. I might be misremembering last year’s PAX, but it seemed like the only 3D technology on the floor then was a small section of NVIDIA’s booth, a timid, tentative offering that nevertheless managed to draw a perpetual crowd. This year, NVIDIA was pushing 3D as hard as it could. Its booth—more accurately described as a small mall of game technology, such was its size and layout—was dominated by 3D. The booth was fronted by a 3D-capable monitor 103 inches in size. Passersby could pick up any one of a dozen 3D glasses to experience the effect for themselves.

That experience, I’m sorry to say, is disappointing. It’s not that it doesn’t work; I’m practically stereoblind, and even I was able to perceive some depth in the displays. But just because a thing works, that doesn’t mean that it’s worth your time. 3D projection is taxing on two fronts: it requires a variety of technological trade-offs to work properly, and makes unusual, often uncomfortable demands of an observer’s visual system.

The biggest trade-off is brightness. One way or another, the 3D setup has to send two separate images to each of your eyes. This means that the image is going to look, at best, half as bright as it would under 2D viewing conditions. This may be acceptable in a movie theater, where you’re sitting in front of a massive screen that pours tons of light into an otherwise completely dark environment, but it’s terrible in the context of a living room or a show floor. With my 3D glasses on, screen images appeared dismally murky. Details were lost and some scenes became entirely unintelligible. The goggles felt awkward to wear, especially over my eyeglasses. In short, it’s an uncomfortable viewing experience of questionable value, to say nothing of the cost of the technology. No person is in his right mind would spend the hundreds, possibly even thousands, of dollars necessary to play a 3D game in his own home.

One intriguing alternative is Nintendo’s 3DS, which uses a variation of the “hologram” cards that were popular in the 80s (you know, hold it at one angle, you see one picture, hold it at a different angle, you see another). When you hold the 3DS at just the right angle, the screen beams two separate images into each eye, creating a depth percept without the need for expensive monitors or dim glasses. The image is bright, and lining yourself up is simple. That the effect works at all is extremely impressive, but I still question the practically. If you’re like me, you move around when you play games, and if you move the 3DS out of its narrow “sweet spot,” you’ll get a double image instead of 3D. Though promising, it’s worth keeping in mind that this method will only work with a handheld system, and cannot be adapted for a television.

Now let’s talk vision science. For the record, what I have to say here applies to 3D movies as well. 3D projection is not natural, or as we might say in the lab, it’s not ecologically valid. The human eye regularly performs two related but independent actions: convergence and focus. Hold up a finger at arm’s length, then move it toward your face. As you keep your eyes on your finger, you’ll notice two things. One, your surroundings will fall out of focus as your finger gets closer to your face. Two, your eyes might start to feel weird. This is because they’re converging at a fairly extreme angle. Essentially, you’re crossing your eyes. Out in the real world, focus and convergence always change in tandem. But in a 3D movie or game, your point of focus is constant (the screen), while convergence changes depending on the contents of the scene. I don’t suppose you’ve seen the trailer for Pirates of theCaribbean 4? The trailer is in 3D, and like most trailers, it cuts rapidly from shot to shot. The depth plane changes every few seconds, and it’s completely exhausting. The human visual system simply isn’t built to process the world this way.

3D suffers from artistic problems, too. Designers and directors have had over a hundred years to learn how light, color, texture, and spatial arrangement affect a scene. We have no such body of knowledge for the manipulation of depth (da Vinci and Picasso notwithstanding). Nobody designing 3D games, or directing 3D movies, really knows how to use 3D effectively. I watched someone play World of Warcraft in 3D for about fifteen minutes. Every time he killed a monster, a large notification would float over the screen at the front of the depth plane, obstructing the ongoing action. The effect was distracting and ugly. And we’re talking about Blizzard! A company that spends years meticulously honing its games for the optimal playing experience, one of the few companies that actually conducts rigorous research for these sorts of issues. If Blizzard can’t do it right, who can?

Since I’m not stereoscopically normal (neither is Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik, apparently), I went out of my way to ask other people at the show how they felt about 3D. Most people at the NVIDIA booth seemed unimpressed. They complained about the subtlety of the 3D effect, the dimness of the images, eye strain, the inability to spectate if you weren’t wearing 3D glasses, and the general awkwardness of these systems. People were more positive when asked about the Nintendo 3DS, which makes a certain amount of sense, as Nintendo’s system is much less cumbersome and produces brighter images.

So that’s the shape of 3D: a wasteland of finicky technology, dark, muddled images, and uncomfortable customers who can barely manage to feign enthusiasm for the duration of a show, let alone hours in the living room. That kid playing World of Warcraft? He wasn’t playing it because it was 3D. He was playing it because he loves World of Warcraft. If 3D is to have any kind of future, it needs to create compelling experience that you can’t get in 2D, and I’m not sure that such a thing is possible.

During my hours in the exhibition hall, I also caught Ubisoft’s Child of Eden. More accurately, it caught me, as well as everyone else who passed within sight of it. Child of Eden looks like something out of the year 2045, a rhythm-based first person shooter that relies on the Xbox Kinect for interaction. Players fly through the game’s trippy environments simply by waving their hands. I didn’t get a chance to play it for myself, but even as a spectator, the experience is incredibly immersive. The flowing visuals and organic pace of action are mesmerizing, and seeing players control the game without a physical controller was downright arresting. An awe-inspiring piece all around, and not a 3D goggle in sight.