Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting

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The Display Continuum

Virtual Unreality…January 2006

It would seem reasonable that after more than 100 years of various unsuccessful attempts, technically knowledgeable people would have figured out that there must be more to creating realistic virtual reality than simply adding a second view of the same scene.

A long time ago, at the dawn of the photography age, we already tried out various stereoscopic viewing devices for black and white photographs. The impression of depth could readily be observed but the scenes didn’t look “real”. Then, when movies came along, we tried again -- beginning with rudimentary attempts using red and green glasses to separate the projected images. That was good for about a one-time experience. Then, when color movies became the norm, the attempts switched to polarizing glasses. Again, the feeling of depth could readily be created, but it looked no more “real” than the early black and white photographs. Once again, it took about one movie’s worth of viewing to decide that this wasn’t going to be a lasting technology. What was it that was missing that prevented us from enjoying these experiences more? Why did all of these 3-D efforts fail?

Today, with the stereoscopic systems currently under development, we are no closer to creating truly realistic “virtual reality”; yet the popular press keeps publishing articles that claim that the next great technology leap will be the transformation of our video viewing experience to 3-D. And researchers continue to try to find various new ways to improve on the presentation of these stereo images with the conviction that once created they will enjoy widespread acceptance.

pulseEven technically astute publications such as the IEEE Spectrum seem to be comfortable with the viewpoint that with new “digital” technology stereoscopic 3-D is just around the corner for mainstream applications. An article in the November 2005 issue titled “The Sky Is Falling” discusses how the conversion to digital cinema “may also turn 3-D movie projection from a seldom-used gimmick into the commonplace”. As best I can tell, the reason given in this article for why this may happen is that with “digital projection systems” the implementation of 3-D viewing becomes cheaper. Is that all there is to it? If we make it cheaper then everyone will want it? Even though all the previous attempts failed, is something so fundamentally different this time that it’s going to happen? Not likely!

As we have discussed in past columns, there is more to creating a truly realistic viewing experience than simply giving each of our eyes a separate image to view. When we try to do that, our eyes will indeed recognize the additional information but our eye-brain system will immediately classify the incoming data as phony. That is because we are missing the other depth cues that come from our eyes continually shifting position and scanning a scene, from depth-of-focus changes, and from subtle perspective changes that come from very small shifts in head position. For these reasons, attempts to create a realistic virtual environment with the simple addition of a second viewing channel are guaranteed to fail. We will always end up with what can be characterized as the “doll-house” effect.

Ah, but wait! Could there be something happening that may yet provide our rudimentary 3-D technologies an entry point into a viewing experience that can be enjoyed more than one time, and perhaps become commercially successful? If we admit that we cannot create a believable reality, then where could we find an application for what we do know how to do? Well, what about the rapidly growing market for movies created using computer animation? We are seeing more films, such as Polar Express, being produced utilizing a peculiar blend of the real and the unreal. Our visual systems recognize these images as artificially generated, but we are nevertheless fascinated with the special effects that can be accomplished only through the imagination and computer skills of the creators.

sunsetThe creators of these movies must, however, be careful that they don’t make them “too real” because then our eye-brain system may begin to fight against this artificial reality. But the addition of rudimentary 3-D using only stereoscopy will introduce no such conflict. We may find this extra artificiality especially enjoyable in scenes that involve movement. The roller-coaster-like train rides in a movie such as Polar Express could be even more exciting in 3-D. Realism is not the end objective here. Creating an entertaining experience is sufficient. And for that, the addition of simple stereoscopic viewing is something that we may pay to see -- more than once.

Thus, a new genre of movie making, using computer animation, may finally be the path to acceptance of a technology that -- for the foreseeable future -- we only know how to do in a way that is not very “real” at all.

Are you looking forward to rudimentary 3-D viewing in the coming years? How widely do you think this technology can penetrate the entertainment industry? For your thoughts on this topic, or others, you may contact me directly from this site, by e-mail silzars@attglobal.net, by phone 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.