Thursday, April 15, 2010

A better wall than a window: the pitfalls of 3D

The other day I was walking through The Place on my way to Starbucks to meet my girlfriend, and I saw that Samsung had set up a booth in the plaza to promote their soon to be arriving to China 3D televisions. I’ve seen Avatar and Ice Age 3D in theaters, but had never experienced a 3D TV, so I stepped in to take a look.

Samsung had set up their 46” C7000s for the demonstration, which was showing a CG animated film I wasn’t familiar with. I sat down on the stool, put the requisite glasses on over my own, and prepared myself to bask in the experience of home theater TV glory.

Now I’ve read some details about these TVs, and the drawbacks inherent to the technology (dramatically reduced brightness levels due to the way the technology works, occasional flickering). But one thing I’ve yet to read any significant commentary on is shrinkage.

I’m not talking about George Costanza in the pool type shrinkage, but apparent screen shrinkage. I noticed this when I went to see Avatar back in Vermont. The theater was a nice theater, clean seats, good-sized screen, and of course 3 fuckin D. I was all set for the cinematic action-adventure of a lifetime. And it was, mostly. I mean forget the stupid story, the special effects were very little short of astonishing in their color and complexity. But why did it all look so… small?

With a normal movie, in normal 2D silver screen space, you’re looking at a wall of moving images. It appears fricken huge because the wall, generally, is in fact pretty fricken huge. Darth Vader’s head is actually five feet tall.

But 3D changes what you’re looking at. It’s no longer a wall, it’s a window. People and objects have depth now, they aren’t just smaller on the screen, they’re actually deeper into the screen. This window effect is very cool; at times I want to reach in, enter the scene. If I could get a little closer to those hot blue Na’vi, I totally would.

But the problem with a window is two-fold: it reminds you of everything you are not seeing—everything that is beyond the borders of the sill—and, because the 3D world has real depth, and it’s all contained within your field of vision, it loses the awesome vastness you get when you watch a 2D film like Star Wars. It’s easier to extend the 3D effect into the TV than it is out toward the viewer, so it doesn’t surround you anymore. It’s like peering into a little box that contains a beautiful, intricate, fully realized world. Indian in the Cupboard.

Granted I have not seen a 3D film on IMAX, so I’m sure I’m missing out. But if a 7-story screen is required to immerse me in the gorgeous depth of 3D cinema, what possibly can a 46” television do for me, or even a 65” for that matter?

Not much. No I didn’t enjoy it, not much at all. As I sat there in the Samsung booth watching allegedly gigantic creatures destroy a cartoon CG version of the Golden Gate Bridge, I couldn’t help thinking how epic it was not. It was like watching miniatures battle it out in some miniature version of the real CG world they were supposed to be inhabiting. I was not impressed.

So what does this mean for gaming? It means I’m a grumpy skeptic, a curmudgeon who doesn’t have much faith in 3D gaming until people no longer understand why Frank’s 2000” TV is a funny song. If the game fails to convey a sense that it is larger than life to me, I just don’t see myself suspending whatever modicum of disbelief is necessary to enjoy the game.

I’m sure I’m wrong though. In fact I think true 3D gaming has more potential than their cinematic counterparts do, simply because people will enjoy interacting in a 3D space more than they do watching others interact in a 3D space. But I don’t see first person shooters benefiting from 3D tech—where will my gun appear? In the screen? Does that Mean I have to sit two feet away to enjoy it? (Not to mention the problems of wearing the 3D glasses over my regular glasses).

If 3D gaming is the sea change event of the next console generation, I hope it is not the kind that requires a 3DTV, but rather the kind demonstrated in this video:

The window effect? This technology eliminates that. You can actually look beyond the frame by moving your head, giving a much more immersive illusion than standard 3D technology does.

Sadly it would only work for one person, so it’s not likely to ever catch on. Until that problem is solved I suppose I’ll have to keep muttering to myself while others enjoy their newfound love with the 3D revolution.

Bah humbug.

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