Nearby Café Home > Art & Photography > Photocritic International

I’ve Seen the Future, and It’s In 3D (a)

CEA logoMy slow but seemingly inexorable march toward full-tilt-boogie geekdom has led me, perhaps inevitably, to attendance at assorted tech expos where the latest innovations get rolled out. I don’t go out of my way for these, as no one yet has sent me to any on assignment, with expenses covered. I simply register as press for what’s at hand. Most recently I attended CE Week — Consumer Electronics Week, organized by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) — in Manhattan, during the week of June 21. Here’s what I learned, and what I anticipate based thereon.

First, we’re moving rapidly toward a 3D digital environment — “stereo for your eyes,” to quote Mitsubishi’s slogan. What seemed like a sidebar just a few years ago has begun to push its way toward a front and center position in the industry, which clearly hopes that consumers will take the bait. Several formats and numerous manufacturers now compete with product lines of screens, glasses, even a no-glasses alternative: Mitsubishi, Vizio, Spectral, Azuna, realD, many more. Multiple presentations and panel discussions during CE Week pondered the looming 3D wave, and, even in a troubled economy, they saw this future as rosy.

I recall trying out a virtual reality environment back in the mid-’90s. It didn’t impress me, perhaps because its developers had applied it to a shoot-’em-up video game that simply didn’t interest me. Most of the 3D systems spotlighted at CE Week used onscreen games or sports events to display their features. I have to separate my lack of interest in that content from the potential of the form itself, making a distinction between what people are doing with 3D now and what others might do with it down the road.

Polaroid 3D glasses

Polaroid 3D glasses

Oddly enough, what struck me most forcefully as 3D harbingers weren’t the impressive (and affordable) screens with accompanying glasses, but the stand-alone eyewear offered by two manufacturers, the famous Polaroid and the newcomer Marchon3D™. Though their product lines differ significantly, both companies assume that 3D — in multiplexes, on home video screens, on computer monitors, in shops and other public spaces — will become so ubiquitous so quickly that citizens will want and/or need 3D-capable glasses of their own to carry around with them, in order to engage with a 3D-everywhere world. They take it for granted that people will want access to a range of fashionable 3D eyewear accessories, rather than making do with cheapo disposable glasses or loaners that have to be returned and whose cleanliness can’t be guaranteed.

Polaroid describes its 3D line as “high quality lightweight frames designed for extended wear.” They add, “Lenses provide full UV protection and so can be safely worn outdoors. Nevertheless we do not recommend these 3D glasses for extended outdoor usage.” (They also note that “Prescription lens wearers are not forgotten, with a range of premium 3D cover styles that fit comfortably over any optical frame” — 3D clip-ons, in other words.)

Marchon3D - 3 Colored Frames

Marchon3D - 3 Colored Frames

Marchon3D goes them one better, not only offering a wider variety of styles but treating them as streetwear, including a sunglasses version and promising a prescription-lens option in the near future — that is, you’d walk around in 3D-viable glasses all the time.

These particular expos preview what’s ahead in the next three to six months — meaning that what they show in June will start shipping between July and September, in order to be in stock and on the shelves for Xmas. Both these companies may prove overly optimistic in their bet on the speed of the advent of the 3D environment, but it’s also possible that they’re just savvily pitching their tents at the starting line of visual culture’s next Oklahoma land rush.

If 3D everywhere has in fact arrived for film, video, and animation, it’s surely here also for still photography, conceivably via the same technologies as just mentioned for both presentation and reception of the images. What this will mean in the long run I can’t say, but if true it’s a transformational moment for still imaging, at least as much so as the shift from analog to digital.

"Charles Street Mall, Boston Common," c. 1860, by John P. Soule.

"Charles Street Mall, Boston Common," c. 1860, by John P. Soule.

Yet it’s not without precedent. Photography in 3D has already had one heyday, the era of the stereo card and stereo viewer. From the 1860s into the early 1930s, these were common items in millions of households worldwide. The cards featured everything from scenic views and directorial stagings of Biblical stories and popular novels to captioned and often extensive reports on current events internationally — arguably the first emergence of the form we’ve come to know as photojournalism.

View-Master Model E, c. 1955.

View-Master Model E, c. 1955.

Subsequent manifestations of the impulse toward looking at 3D still imagery, such as the View-Master with its tiny pairs of color transparencies, found a sizeable market but never had the cultural impact of the earlier form. The View-Master devolved into a kid’s toy, and as such still remains in production. No technology for the production of stereo images ever found more than a short-term niche market at the consumer end, as was the case with the Stereo Realist camera.

But if we’re about to get swept away on a tidal surge of kinetic stereo imagery, it’s safe to predict that stereo still imaging will accompany it. Digital technology may enable what analog tech could not. Another watershed moment, if so.

iPad 2

iPad 2

Also evident during CE Week was the popularity of the tablet. There were tablets everywhere. The journalists attending mostly had tablets. The sales reps for almost everything had tablets for their own use. The computer manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard were mostly showing tablets. And the peripherals companies featured external keyboards designed for use with tablets. Made me crave an iPad, though I’ll certainly wait till iPad 3 comes out.

Those keyboards notwithstanding, tablets propose a touch-based relationship to the computer/device screen. Hardly a mouse to be seen anywhere during CE Week; the keyboards had touchpads instead for such functions. I’m inclined to predict that the mouse will vanish from the average user’s toolkit; that the keyboard will become integral to our computing devices, appearing onscreen rather than sitting around externally; that the keyboard may also become virtual, a projection onto external surfaces; and that content input will become increasingly gesture-based and speech-based.

This ties in, logically, to the nascent 3D revolution. In engaging with a sensorily convincing 3D environment one automatically becomes more a participant, less an observer. Tethering oneself to a physical keyboard involves breaking the 3D illusion and restricts one’s movement. Conversely, gestures, touch activation, speech activation, all amplify that illusion.

In short, we’re racing toward a much more immersive, tactile, kinesthetic involvement with computing generally, and with digital imaging specifically. I don’t think it spells the end of still photography. But in a world in which 3D still imagery is rampant, and 3D still-imaging systems readily available, what will people make of 2D still imagery and imaging systems — which, with only a few exceptions, is how the history of photography to date could be described?

(More to come.)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

7 comments to I’ve Seen the Future, and It’s In 3D (a)

  • Stereo for your Eyes

    I don’t often have such a quick response to an editorial and when I do it’s generally because of something Bush/Obama said or did, not this time-it’s my trusted friend A.D. Coleman.

    I’ve seen the Future; just that phrase alone gives me the hives. Manson, Waco, lets just bundle the entire extremist in one neat little box (Mitsubishi) and drop it in the East River. So you have seen the future, but in your editorial you also illustrated it’s past so this is not a new idea-more a recycled idea. But why was it recycled?

    I think you could point to the film Avatar, and it’s box office sales for bringing this off the shelf at about $18.00 a ticket, now that’s not the future-that’s cash. Why not call it a Cashable Trend that shall fade as it has throughout the history of photography. As a photographer and former salesman at the largest camera store in the world, I can say firmly that it’s a trend, a fashionable trend that everyone wants to cash in on. There are the camera’s, the glasses, the television and of course Werner Herzog.

    Werner Herzog? Yes, I went to the screening of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, after the film-and I must say this; Herzog is one of the most entertaining directors that I’ve ever met, of Germans-he is the funniest. A question that came up in the Q&A afterwards was why shoot it in 3-D? Herzog replied that because this was a one time shooting, and the size of the cave, which is France’s Chavulet cave he (Herzog) felt 3-D was the way to go. I don’t believe that to be true, I think you could have reached the same results without the 3-D, although Roger Ebert called it “Spellbinding”. Not Cashable.

    As you said, “…In short, we’re racing toward a much more immersive, tactile, kinesthetic involvement with computing generally”. As in the past, this is sale’s driven, if it does not sale and become mainstream it will become part of our photographic history. If it is, and it is a novelty item, treat it as such. Am I going to be reading your blog in 3-D in the future, I don’t think so. All my best.

    John Patrick Naughton

    • To be sure, money drives the consumer electronics industry, as it does most industries. The profit motive certainly drove the industry that made the stereo card and stereoscope into must-have consumer goods from the 1860s on. The possibility of lucrative sales has motivated every attempt at still and kinetic 3D photography, from the View-Master to the Stereo Realist and Nimslo cameras to the 3D movies of the 1950s. Financial gain has motivated production and marketing of almost every tool and material used in 2D photo-imaging as well. So what?

      Manufacturers new and old, large and small, aren’t moving into production, advertising, and distribution of 3D-related merchandise simply because one film did boffo biz at the box office. (And certainly not because Werner Herzog used the technology for one documentary film.) Their market research has told them that something’s coming. Market research isn’t infallible, of course. But when an entire industry shifts in a certain direction, what’s “trendy” today can become tomorrow’s dominant tendency. Like the portable phone, for example.

  • J. McDonald

    An interesting article and one that I wasn’t expecting to see on this site. I admit that I’ve largely avoided the current ‘3D revolution’ but like the previous incarnations, the key problem is still the fact that you need to always carry a peripheral device (glasses) to spontaneously participate in the 3D experience. Although making them functional as sunglasses is an intelligent step, they will still just be fragile baggage at night and on cloudy days. People are willing to lug around devices, such as smartphones, but only when they prove useful at any time and any place. I think that there is money to be made with the 3D experience but it will always be novelty and all novelties eventually become old. Once the wonder is over people will realize that it’s enhancement of the 2D world is really only skin deep. Fortunately stimulating the mind is still more rewarding than merely pinging the retinas.

    • Clearly, the makers of 3D-capable eyewear hope that, by making their product available as fashionable accessories, even prescription-viable, they’ll reach the market that already buys eyeglasses, sunglasses, etc. Thus they won’t be an additional item to carry around, but a substitute for one people already carry and use as a matter of course. Contact lenses with 3D capacity won’t lag far behind.

      And if 3D visual material becomes omnipresent in the environment, then taking one’s glasses along even at night or on a cloudy day will simply turn into a habit. Of course, some form of 3D that requires no glasses may be warming up its engines on the runway.

  • Michael Martone

    I shall like if any media uses 3D that they not do so exclusively, as I have only one eye.

    I have made a career for myself with that single eye, over the decades. I should not wish to think with new media using that old & tested commercial appeal of three dimension’s for photography,that new artists- technicians might be producing art that this old photographer will not be able to see.

    Knowing you have been in the forefront of digital awareness image making and it’s change upon our world, I look forward to your reporting a new technology one day that allows we eye injured people the chance to see 3D, I really do not know what it is, but I can imagine what it is.

    • From my readings in the literature of visual perception, I’ve gathered that seeing dimensionally requires binocular sight — input from two eyes, so placed in the head that they can cover approximately the same field of vision. Obviously, this disadvantages anyone with monocular vision, like yourself.

      With that said, we’ve had promising experiments with generating visual experience for the blind. I assume that, as medical technology progresses, this may become a reality. If it does, enabling people with impaired eyesight to perceive and navigate effectively the actual dimensional world, I’d expect the ability to experience 2D and 3D representations — images, moving and still — would be part of that development.

      Can’t say this will happen in our lifetimes, but who knows?

  • Michael Martone

    I am also (after your comments about having a synthetic ability in the distant future for the blind to see) thinking as I recently saw on a film documentary about the restoration of hearing to the deaf, some deaf folks wished to have the device removed as they were used to their life long deafness.

    I think if one who was only seeing in 2 dimensions as I have for these many years the additional reality of things coming at one as in the old movie “The House of Wax” which even for me made me duck at times, as objects came flying forward, might be to much, I may wish to stay 2D.

    However I tend to somehow think that I dream in 3D which needs no patents or mechanical devices to transmit, but how am I to know that my dreams may be different then a 2 eye sighted persons?

    A fascinating issue you have brought up.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>