Avatar and the future of 3D (Part 2)

March 21, 2010 10:40 pm Published by 3 Comments

Don't stare at it too long.

For a few years now, 3D has been making a slow comeback. In the past, it’s been little more than a gimmick, and was hindered by issues such as poor image quality and clunky glasses for the audience to wear. But with Avatar, 3D proved itself to Hollywood as a great way to make money. But has 3D finally moved into the mainstream, or is it still too soon?


A problem of focus

Probably the biggest downside to watching a movie in 3D is just getting used to it. We’re all accustomed to focusing our eyes on the screen in front of us, and allowing your eyes to automatically focus on images that seem to be in front of or behind the screen takes some practice. And for about the first hour of the movie, I was very aware of the effort that it took just to watch the movie. But that’s fine; with some practice, I’m sure it would become second nature.

The problem is that you’re still watching something that was filmed on a camera, through a camera lens. What that means is that the director, cinematographer, and/or cameraman is choosing what the camera focuses on, not you. In the real world, if you’re looking at something, anything in front of or behind that thing will be out of focus, though we don’t really notice that. The further behind or in front of the first object a second object is, the more out of focus it is to your eye (or a camera). When you want to look at the second object, your eye automatically refocuses from the first object to the second object, so you can see the second object clearly (and the first object becomes unfocused).

So when you’re watching a 3D movie, you’re really dealing with two conflicting focus mechanisms: the camera, and your eyes. As you’re watching the movie, the camera focuses on the characters, and if your eyes are also focusing on the characters, there’s no problem. But if you decide that you want to look at an object behind the characters, there’s a problem: the camera isn’t focused on that item, so no matter how much you strain your eyes, that item isn’t ever going to be in focus.

That’s been one of the biggest problems with 3D movies: they’re still filmed like 2D movies. To overcome this problem, we need to eliminate camera-based focus. That’s easy to do with computer-generated imagery, but as far as I know, it’s currently impossible when you’re filming reality. What we need, perhaps, is some sort of holographic filming method, so that all "layers" being filmed (essentially an infinite number of layers) are recorded at real-life resolutions. Not only is this currently impossible, but when we can finally do it, it’s going to take massive amounts of computing power just to store and edit a movie.

To watch a modern 3D movie, you’ve got to resist the constant urge to look around at what you’re seeing, and try to just let the camera do the focusing for you. Difficult, but not impossible. And after about an hour of watching Avatar, I got used to it. From what I’ve heard, many people have left Avatar (sometimes before it ended) with headaches and sore eye muscles because they kept fighting for focus control.

Sick of 3D

I’ve also heard that some people became motion-sick during the movie, but I didn’t experience that – probably because I play a lot of video games. Hell, I used to play Descent and never had any motion sickness issues.

However, if I’m a passenger in a car for more than 10 minutes, I get very sick, and I need prescription motion-sickness patches when I go on a boat trip. (I took a 4-day sailing trip back in middle school, and last year I went on a week-long cruise.)

Four-Eyes

Another huge problem with 3D: the glasses. I don’t care about having to wear special glasses, and the ones I wore for Avatar were comfortable enough – no worse than my cheap-ass Blu-Blockers. But I’m not really sure how people who already wear corrective eyeglasses handled it. Do you put the 3D glasses on over your regular glasses, or do you have to wear the 3D glasses instead?

The way that 3D glasses work is that each lens is polarized, so that one eye sees one "layer" being projected onto the screen, and the other eye sees a second layer. (That’s also effectively how your eyes work – close one eye, and you lose a lot of depth perception.)

However, this means that two images are being projected onto the screen at the same time, rather than one. Because they have to effectively fit two images into a single-image space (a frame of film) the 3D image has to be significantly lower-resolution than a 2D image. You give up a lot of 2D "data" for another dimension of data.

One other, easily-corrected problem I had was that, even though the lenses on the 3D glasses are clear, they still block some light, so the movie was a little bit darker to watch than normal. But this could easily be fixed in the future, just by brightening the film itself.

The Fatal Flaw

The worst problem with the whole process, which is a fatal flaw to me, is that once you get used to all the differences I’ve mentioned above, you get used to 3D. In other words, I ceased to notice that it was in 3D at all.

We act like 3D is some amazing new technology, but everything else in life is three-dimensional already. We aren’t amazed as we zoom down the highway in our cars, or bob our heads around to see how everything moves when you change your perspective. 3D in movies is a novelty, and little else. 3D doesn’t make a movie better.

In other words, 3D is a gimmick, and Hollywood trots it out every decade or so to make some quick cash, and then when people get tired of it, they put it away and let people forget about its problems. And I can’t blame them for that – besides, it’s fun until the novelty wears off.

I won’t avoid a movie if it’s being shown in 3D, but I’m not going to seek it out either. If the only way to watch a movie is in 3D, that’s fine by me. But if I have an option between 2D and 3D (and 3D always costs more), I’m just going to stick with 2D.

The Future of 3D

I predict that 3D isn’t going to become mainstream for a long time. They need to eliminate the need for 3D glasses, and fix the focus problem. To do both of those things will probably require holographic technology. And when they have that, why confine it to a rectangle on the wall when the imagery could be projected all around you? Essentially, we’re talking about the beginnings of the Holodeck, and that would require a radical rethinking of filmmaking, making it interactive, probably merging with video games (or perhaps that would be the other way around).

But filmmaking isn’t going to go away, just as filmmaking didn’t eliminate theater or books. There will probably always be a use for guided, non-interactive image-based storytelling, which is what movies are. I just don’t think 3D will ever be a very big part of it.

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This post was written by Bevans

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