Technology will never succeed in recreating the richness that the five senses deliver our brain to interpret our world. The human race’s innate ability to capture an orthographic record of our experiences has progressed over the millennia in the pursuit of an image that represents the most accurate depiction available during that particular time period. Our ability record still and moving images has come a long way from early cave drawings. Just as cave drawings are no longer in vogue for a variety of reasons, there are many factors that dictate the popularity or acceptance of any given visual recording medium. Specifically, over the past 150 years, the technology to succeed traditional two-dimensional (2D) visual representation has been widely available to provide another dimension to the human visual record. These three dimensional (3D) technologies have provided us with the ability to represent the world in ways closer to the one decoded in our consciousness. Although the apparatus and technology for this 3D facsimile of our world has evolved since it was first conceived, civilization has yet to embrace it, as it has other popular forms of visual media. Are media consumers ready to finally embrace this medium? More importantly, will we have a choice?

Early philosophers and scientists have long known the science and theory of 3D vision. Specifically, the dominant physiological apparatus of binocular vision is what allows all sighted living beings to interpret the three dimensional world that we live in. The physician Galen noted this recognition of binocular vision as the major sense that lends itself to 3D vision. In the second century A.D. Galen notes in his writing On the Use of the Different Parts of the Human Body, “that a person standing near a column and observing first with the left eye and then with the right eye will see different portions of the background column” (qtd. in Zone 5). That is, each eye records a slightly different images from one another. These two images are interpreted by the brain to translate spatial depth and object dimension. Further study by Charles Wheatstone in 1838 would go on to define the characteristics of binocular vision and the techniques that would be required to recreate 3d vision from two separate 2D images. This “Binocular disparity is one of the most, if not the most effective depth cue.” (Pizlo 119).

Along with his hand drawings included in his paper, he also debuted a new invention dubbed the “stereoscope”, and was able to successfully prove that the recreation of three-dimensional space was possible using traditional and undiscovered orthographic techniques. The stereoscope was able to provide two separate images to each eye, effectively tricking the spatial recognition portion of the brain into interpreting depth. This form of 3D viewing of 2D media would not become popular, at the time, due to its difficulty to reproduce the 3D effect with hand drawn or hand painted images.

While stereoscopic hand drawing was successful within the scientific community in the early 1800’s, the general public would not embrace the technology until the mid 19th century when Wheatstone’s stereoscopic techniques would be combined with early photographic methods. With the introduction of stereo photography in conjunction with a cheaper mass-produced stereoscopic apparatus dubbed the “Holmes Stereoscope,” named after its inventor, Oliver Wendell Holmes. In Rosalind E. Krauss’ book “The Optical Unconsciousness,” the rise of the Holmes stereoscope as a popular form of viewing of 3D media had nothing to do with it’s technological superiority. Krauss states, “For the Wheatstone stereoscope, a product of physiological research in the 1830’s, was constructed to produce it’s experience of depth in a way that proved to be much more powerful than later devices such as the Holmes or Brewster stereoscope”(133). The popularity of the Holmes Stereoscope was due to its simplicity and affordability, not its technical advantage.

With the invention of the moving image in the late 19th century, and the development of the narrative storytelling model using motion pictures in the early days of the 20th century, the technology to capture and playback stereoscopic images quickly developed. Moving images quickly replaced their still counterparts for the dominant form of popular media. The popular stereoscope gave way to movies and the motion picture.

The recording of a stereo image, whether still or moving, has remained unchanged since the mid 1800’s. Essentially, two disparate images are taken, using two cameras or lenses. The placement of these imagers must be positioned, on average, 2.5 inches a part. Referred to as the inter-ocular or inter-axial distance, this particular distance is representative of the average gap between human eyes. This distance can be changed to manipulate the 3D effect during recording or playback, to achieve a more sensational 3D result. This adjustable width, straight ahead approach to shooting 3D is often referred to as “parallel” recording. Parallel recording is the simplest form of reproducing 3D images.

For added enhancement of the dept effect, the technique of “convergence” was introduced to further emulate the natural vision of the eyes. Convergence can simply be explained by the visual phenomena of the eyes “crossing” to view an object that is closer than an object that is far away. To understand this effect, all one must do is to hold an object about 4 inches from the eyes and examine the natural tendency of the eyes to cross to keep the item in view. Although convergence is used to further the effect of 3D, its use can also become a determent to the 3D effect because of subtle differences between the shape of eyes versus the shape of film or a video imager. Whereas the eye has a round “image plane” the technology that is used to record electronic images (ccd’s and film) are flat. This inherent flatness produces distortions in each eye that the brain has trouble resolving the intended 3D effect. The human eyes and brain usually correct for deviations in color, resolution and brightness. In the case of the “keystoning” effect created by the convergence method, the brain has trouble believing the effect and produces increased eye strain. Keystoning is one of many defects in the 3D recording process.

To talk about only the recording method of 3D images would only be half of what makes stereoscopy effective. The technology for viewing 3D motion pictures is just as essential as the capture method. Over the past 100 years, several forms of 3D projection and display have been developed and all are in use today. Essentially the technology uses the same principles that were developed by Wheatstone’s experiments in the mid 19th century; isolate recorded left and right images and deliver them simultaneously to each eye.

In order of development, the types of 3D playback can be broken down into 5 different technologies; anaglyph, polarized, active shutter, isolated stereoscopic, and auto stereoscopic. Anaglyph display technology is the cheapest and most inferior technology. Often using the classic red/blue glasses, this technology separates the left and right images into two colors, red for right and blue for left. The user wears red and blue glasses to filter out the opposite image when viewed on screen. This method creates inferior color representation due to the filters red/blue display method.

The polarized method uses two types of polarized lenses (circular or linear) to produce the left and right image, along with the opposite polarization in the form of glasses that filter the polarized light from the audience. Unlike anaglyph, polarized tech does not alter the color of the recorded material and produces a full color image.

Active shutter technology uses glasses that contain a battery to actively “block” out projected left and right images. The shutter method also produces a full color image and lends itself to being a simple, yet expensive, playback technology. This method is the current technology most widely available to home television sets.

Isolated stereoscopic technology is an updated form of the stereoscope that uses small displays with double images to produce the 3D effect. This cheap and pocketable 3D tech is often used in wearable glasses or cases for mobile devices.

The holy grail of 3D display technology is referred to as “auto stereoscopic”. This is the only method that uses no glasses and relies on shifted lens technology to deliver each image to both eyes. Essentially, the auto stereoscopic delivery system overlays small lenses on a transmissive screen such as a LCD. Each row of lenses sends one image left, and one image right. Images are only able to be viewed by one eye at a time, essentially blocking any overlapping that can occur with any other system. Auto stereoscopic screens produce a “sweet” spot for the user. That is, the intended audience must be an exact distance away from the screen for the 3D effect to work.

With all of the various forms of technologies available for 3D viewing developed over the years, why haven’t 3D movies, television and overall 3D storytelling become the dominant form of media? A story that is told in a format that more closely resembles human depth and vision has to be superior, right? Well, there are many reasons that 3D has not become consistently popular over the years.

Some would argue that the technology is not convincing enough, while others would argue that what the 3rd dimension adds to storytelling has not been widely accepted due to it’s improper use as a storytelling apparatus. Ray Zone writes in “Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3D Film.”

When the first publicly exhibited stereoscopic motion pictures were shown in 1915 at the Astor Theater in New York. Lynde Denig, a reviewer for

Moving Picture World, wrote. “These pictures would appeal first by reason of their novelty, then because of the wonderful effects obtained, and after

that, when they had become familiar, there would be the same old demand for an interesting story,” (qtd. in Zone 84).

During the early 20th century, 3D and 2D storytelling were in direct competition for an audience via stereoscopic cards and movies, respectively. Although the technology to playback 3D films was widely available, albeit inferior to the quality of similar 2D storytelling experience, the audience preferred the 2D familiarity. Eventually the 2D movie became the favored medium for storytelling due to its simplicity and believability. The “composite, synthetic nature of the stereoscopic image could never be fully effaced. An apparatus openly based on a principle of disparity, on a “binocular” body, and on an illusion patently derived from the binary referent of the stereoscopic card of paired images” (Crary, 133). 2D wasn’t better or worse than 3D because of its lack of realism, but because of its familiarity and ease of acceptance with the audience. The public was able to “see” the film from a distance rather than be a part of it due to a technical 3D “brain hack”. Although 3D storytelling persisted and at times flourished over the next 95 years, its popularity has never been able to match the 2D juggernaut that is modern cinema.

So what is the future of 3D storytelling? Well, in today’s 3D world, the technology to record and playback 3D has not changed much. What has changed is the proliferation and access to 3D tech, and more importantly, content.

Over the past 3 years, a resurgence in 3D has been adopted by many consumer companies and content producers. Phones and gaming systems are available with auto stereoscopic screens, TV’s are available to playback 3D with the assistance of active shutter technology, universal standards have been set, and the number of 3D capable theatres has increased world wide to over 7,000. The consumer push of 3D technology is only going to increase as tech companies encourage consumers to purchase the latest and greatest media devices. James Cameron agrees that consumer televisions are the future, but are lacking in one key area, content.

“We’re going to have 3D TVs all around us … and we’re going to need thousands of hours of sports, comedy and music and all kinds of entertainment,”(qtd. Herskovitz, and Lewis 1-1).


If visual 3D is to be finally accepted in our society, I believe that the driving force will not be the technology, but the quality of the content created for the 3D apparatus. Current technology is often seen as a gimmick or hook to drive the media consumer to devour (and pay) for the content. With the different 3D technologies being pushed upon us without the content to support it, it’s the content that will ultimately drive the embracing of the medium. Movies like “Avatar” that shun the traditional spectacle that 3D has been seen as in the past, the 3rd dimension will become another storytelling device, much like computer generated graphics have changed modern storytelling. 3D will have to be seen and used by storytellers as not a device to sell ticket or gadgets, but as a way to deliver depth and further understanding of the story, game, or user interface. Stereographer Jeanne Guillot’s dissertation entitled, “Is 3D Cinema Necessarily Spectacular?” Goes on to say:

This is the reason why I feel rather confident about the future of 3D cinema. I believe it will spark the curiosity and certainly the creativity of a number of directors, who will find ways of bringing this format into new realms. Stereoscopy is too rich a medium to remain confined to a restricted realm. (74)


3D has not changed much in the past 150 years. From still photography to 3D on mobile devices, the technology of 3D has never driven its adoption. The sensation of depth that 3D gives to viewers is no more than another storytelling tool. I believe that what will finally push this cinematic device over the tipping point into widespread acceptance, will be the quality of the content using new cinematic techniques. A new breed of storytellers that have unprecedented and universal access to the technology will develop 3D into a new art form. One that is accepted by the masses not for its “wow” factor, but for the feeling it yields to the story, character, or theme presented before them.


Works Cited

Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1999. Print.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: on Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century. Cambridge: MIT, 1992. Print.

Guillot, Jeanne. “Is 3D Cinema Necessarily Spectacular?” French Film Festival, Richmond Virginia. La Fémis, 01092009. Web. 1 May 2010. < %20these%20en%20anglais.pdf>.

Krauss, Rosalind E. The Optical Unconscious. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1993. Print.

Pizlo, Zygmunt. 3D Shape: Its Unique Place in Visual Perception. Cambridge: MIT, 2008. Print.

Zone, Ray. Stereoscopic Cinema & the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952. Lexington, Ky: University of Kentucky, 2007. Print.

Herskovitz, Jon, and Chris Lewis. “Avatar’s James Cameron urges producers to embrace 3D TV.” Reuters 13 May 2010: 1-1. Web. 14 May 2010. < eedName=technologyNews&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&ut m_campaign=Feed:+reuters/UKTechnologyNews+(News+/+UK+/+Technolo gy+News)&utm_content=Google+Reader>.