2009-12-31

3D and such.

Every 10 years or so 3D movies are going to revolutionize the preferred way of ingesting cultural output -- or intellectual property as we are now told to think of it. Up until now the promise of the ultimate immersive experience has proven illusive. Beyond some enthusiasm centering around a handful of releases these fads usually die down quietly.

I can't say I expected much in terms of the 3D experience when I went to see "Avatar", and indeed, they do not appear to have cracked it this time either.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed the movie. I just didn't enjoy the 3D experience.

If, for a moment, we ignore the uncomfortable and clumsy Roy Orbison style glasses you have to wear, there is something more fundamental that needs to change with the way we shoot movies for this to work: cinematography.

Watching a 3D movie still feels like you are drunk. Everything is slightly blurry. Also, while shallow depth of field, motion blur and rapid movement works really well for 2D, it is awfully confusing in 3D. And what clown figured that steady-cam style shots were a good idea!?

What feels natural in 2D just makes you feel drunk in 3D. It is quite natral to move your eyes around the field of view -- perhaps more so when you are trying to give the brain the impression of actual depth. But when the director of photography has decided for you what is important and what isn't by way of shallow depth of field and selective focus, you just end up straining your eyes to focus on something you can't really focus on. I guess you have to practice to just passively accept and not strain your eyes.

(Peter Boros, who has done some work on 3D, said that a fundamental problem is that your eyes focus on something that is at a fixed distance, while in the real world, objects are at different distances along the Z-axis. This probably confuses our brain and makes the sensory experience thoroughly unpleasant. We agreed that what is needed is probably precise eye-tracking (possibly including something that can determine focal length) and real-time scene rendering using the tracking-information is probably what you need)

But it wasn't all bad. Some scenes were quite stunning in 3D. But for the most part, it just isn't anywhere near good enough yet. The movie industry needs to learn a lot more before this is going to work properly.

So what is different this time around? What is different from the previous 3D fads?

From what I gather the manufacturers of displays for TVs are all giddy with excitement about 3D these days. 3D requires better displays, higher refresh rates and a whole slew of new gear consumers would need to get in order to ...uhm..."enjoy" 3D.

It is almost like re-living the 90s when lots of really boring people were obsessed with "virtual reality". Remember that? When head-mounted displays with inertial systems were just around the corner and we would all be immersed in our own tailor made lucid dream? Well, we got a few good first-person shooters (none of which used head-mounted displays) and a whole lot of really lo-fi VR-rubbish (both with and without head-mounted displays).

Anyone else find it a bit amusing that "Avatar" uses the ultimate immersive experience as a plot device?

So will it stick? Well, if the manufacturers manage to pump out enough gadgets that are "good enough" I guess it might. At least for a while. Though I have a suspicion that the enthusiasm will die back down to sane levels once people have burnt lots of their hard-earned cash on a bunch of rubbish that doesn't really work all that well.

But hey, things happen fast these days. Perhaps we will have 3D systems that actually work well in a few years or even months?

Until then, I'll have a regular 2D movie, thank you.

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