A Short Introduction to Stereoscopy

First of all I must state that I am by no means an expert in the field of 3D, but merely strongly interested in that realm and trying to learn about it as much as I can. So at the moment I see myself as an student of stereoscopic world and its possibilities. Nevertheless, I can make an effort to try to connect the concepts of McLoud and McLuhan to my current knowledge and thoughts on the subject matter. But first, I think I have to address the issues of the history of stereoscopy and my personal views on the 3D sphere, in order to give grounds to my commentary later on. So if it is ok, I would like to concentrate on the basics in this first post and then later on answer the more specific questions about 3D -visuals presented in Shaping Media blog.

In his book A History and Filmography of Stereoscopic Cinema R.M. Hayes notes that there is no consensus on an exact historical point in time when stereoscopy was born. According to Hayes, most scholars consider the greek physician Galen, who lived in the second century A.D., the first to address these issues in his writings. Others, however, argue that so few original texts have survived from those days that it is not possible to say how broad the knowledge of stereoscopic principles was in the ancient world. Usually stereoscopy, as a science and a cultural form, is seen to have originated with the mirror apparat built by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1833. Like many of the greatest inventions, the thing that Wheatstone had recognized is so simple, that it might even seem obvious. It is generally known, that most human beings have two eyes, which, despite their common point of focus, receive their image of the surrounding world from a slightly different angles. So the right eye sees a bit more of the right side of the object in the field of view and the left eye sees a bit more of the left side of the same object. Instead of these two images being interceded to the mind as two separate and individual pieces, the brain combines these images into one image, in which the differing information of the two viewpoints appears as a sense of depth. In nature this kind of binocular vision is common to predators at the top of the food chain, whose success depends on spatial perception and the ability to accurately evaluate the position of the pray.

I believe, that the stereoscopic format is a natural way for human beings to receive visual information, and this is true regardless of the fact, that two dimensional surfaces have been dominant in the field of audiovisual representations for ages. I do admit, that it is justified to ask how can stereoscopic dimensions enhance an audiovisual experience – especially since audiences do not usually question the lack of depth of plain surfaces that are commonly used to display imagery. But throughout the history of development of transferring information using man made images, there has been a distinctive tendency to strive towards mimicking our natural way of perceiving our surroundings with the aid of technology – movement, color and resolution are clear examples. And I think that stereoscopy is a natural extension of this development. When sound was first introduced to cinema, the most prominent critics mocked the development and made remarks like “if I want to hear actors talk I go see a play or open a radio.” Color was met with similar disdain, and labeled as unartistic quality that would ruin cinema. Yet in both cases, there was more information provided to the receiver and despite the judgement of the critics the audiences demanded sound and color as soon as they were available. So far the stereoscopic technology has been ridiculed by critics using the same kind of arguments heard in the past, but it has not yet proved them wrong in the manner of sound and color. Stereoscopic technology has had three major attempts at gaining hegemony in the visual culture – one in the 1920’s and two follow ups in the 50’s and 80’s. All of them were plagued by major technological and financial problems, which at the time were difficult to overcome. And now, at the beginning of a new millennium, the audiovisual industry is pushing once more for the acceptance of stereoscopy into the mainstream. At the moment the success of this fourth major attempt is somewhat questionable. Yes, a major portion of the products from the Hollywood pipeline are stereoscopic, but the 3D TV channels have been a failure. Of course the history and the bad reputation gained over a century is hard to overcome. But in addition to fighting prejudice from critics and audiences alike, there are still practical conventions that the users find dissatisfying – the most noticeably the glasses. The hardware producers have used famous designers and fashion brands to design aesthetically pleasing models of 3D glasses, but to me (and perhaps to the buying audiences) this looks like a desperate attempt to cover up impractical solutions by directing the attention to superficial qualities.

I believe, that in order to become a household name in all visual communication, the technology most likely has to be autostereoscopic, meaning 3D without any glasses or other supplements. But the first time in the history of stereoscopic culture there is light at the end of the tunnel. The advent of the digital technology has made it possible to address the issues that formerly were next to impossible to overcome. These challenges were noticeable in every part of the production process, all the way from initial planning to projections in theaters (the latter being perhaps the most difficult one and the one that made most damage to the reputation of stereoscopy during the past decades). And although were not there yet, we can see the development being made with the autostereoscopic technology. It might start with small apparatus such as the likes of Nintendo 3ds instead of the big screen, but it is happening. And when that is combined with the currently existing possibility for individual people to affordably create their own (and high quality) 3D content, there will be a change for stereoscopic culture to gain more ground in the world of visual communication and perhaps even become a dominant convention to represent visual information.

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