Stereoscopic 3D still sucks


— 1:06 PM on January 21, 2009

Some of you may have noticed a sort of 3D renaissance taking place recently in the entertainment industry. Such high-profile, quality releases as Beowulf and My Bloody Valentine 3D haven't been doing the movement a whole lot of favors, but James Cameron's next magnum opus—and first feature film since Titanic—is being filmed in 3D. All kinds of wacky stuff is being produced to play in 3D in IMAX theatres, as well. If you didn't know any better, you'd think this was some crazy new technology threatening to revolutionize entertainment. Especially if you're one of our younger readers, you may not be aware that this stuff already had its time, and guess what? It failed miserably.

This point is relevant because plenty of other firms are trying to get stereoscopic 3D going on your computer, too, including Nvidia with its GeForce 3D Vision. A kiosk I continually pass by at Fry's Electronics has a monitor tweaked for stereoscopic vision, too. All you have to do is put on these crazy 3D glasses and you, too, can enjoy Hellgate: London (yes, this really is one of the games they demo it with) in stereoscopic, questionable-quality 3D! Given how well it worked, I wouldn't pay five bucks for it, much less three figures.

I'm not inclined to point fingers at this company or that company when I say 3D is frankly still an awful idea. Consider what's arguably one of the best stereoscopic 3D implementations on the market right now: Nvidia's GeForce 3D Vision. I'm told it produces excellent image quality, but there are some real barriers of entry here. The technology requires a 120Hz monitor, and it incurs a fairly precipitous performance drop. Most damningly, while it's pretty much offering the pinnacle of 3D glasses, the fact that 3D glasses are even present is a problem in itself. If I take a head count of my close friends, at least 50% of them wear glasses, and while that's anecdotal (I also associate with an abnormally large number of southpaws, for what it's worth), it's still indicative of a large number of people for whom 3D frankly isn't going to work that well. Ever put 3D glasses on over your regular glasses?

The problem is that stereoscopic 3D is still, in my opinion, more or less asinine. When I have to put on these kooky glasses (or fit them over my regular glasses, which is uncomfortable at best), I feel like it just screams "gimmick." In fact, the whole concept has always felt like a gimmick to me. All I have to do is pop out my Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare DVD for proof of that. The 3D finale of the movie isn't just a failure because the movie sucks (and it does, but I love it anyway), but because 3D just isn't all that exciting. It had a very brief run of popularity in the 70s and 80s before dying a well-deserved death. I love Captain EO as much as the next guy, but 3D had to go.

My biggest problem with 3D is that, frankly, it's not 3D—just an approximation of it. When you put on the glasses, it just feels like an optical illusion. This is compounded by the fact that for some of us (maybe just me?), there's something of a concerted effort required to get the most out of the experience. It's not one of those things where it just looks perfect from every angle; there are certain ways to look at it that seem better than others. Having my viewing experience of a film or game significantly altered by not looking at it dead on just seems silly to me. And as I said before, after all this trouble, I don't think it looks that good, especially with the coloring, contrast, and brightness problems it can induce.

I wouldn't care quite as much if 3D were just a fad, but it unfortunately has lasting effects. Although video games aren't going to have this problem—they're inherently predisposed to producing three-dimensional spaces anyhow—movies produced for 3D have historically turned into artifacts of the era. Taking advantage of 3D in film means shooting scenes in a fashion you ordinarily wouldn't do, and there's a very good reason for it: outside of 3D, those shots tend to look really, really lame. Consider the sword pointed directly at the camera in the cinematic abortion Beowulf. I'm sure it looked fantastic in 3D, but it just doesn't work in regular viewing.

The final bone I have to pick with 3D is a more obvious one: do they really think we're this naive? I've noted that 3D came and went decades ago, and I believe very little has changed since then. The technology hasn't undergone any radical evolutions, and you're still wearing the same stupid glasses. They're just slightly different stupid glasses. As a consumer, I feel somewhat offended by having old trash being pawned off to me as new hotness, especially knowing full well that it never had legs to begin with.

When I spoke to Scott about this, he said 3D was one of the ways movie theaters were trying to stay relevant. This certainly wouldn't be the first time theaters—and studios—have tried to innovate to maintain business. Your movies are in wide-screen right now because of the advent of television; prior to television, films were shot in standard aspect. But wide-screen worked because it more closely approximated how we see, which is to say we have a greater field of vision laterally than we do vertically. It also didn't require us to do anything different to watch our movies. We didn't have to put on glasses, or stand on our heads, or anything.

I think 3D is a naked attempt to stave off obsolescence for a means of distribution that wouldn't be fast approaching death if its real shortcomings were addressed (but that's a rant for another time). And at the end of it all, my point stands: 3D sucked then, and I don't believe anything has changed.

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