Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting

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Remember Virtual Reality?…

In October of 1993, I wrote a column titled “Is Virtual Reality About to Become Real Reality?”.  The column was written to assess the state of this developing technology that was predicted to become the new way that we would interact with our computers – especially for playing video games.  The concept was that we would all be wearing video headsets with motion sensors that would immerse us in the video game or any other viewing experience.  The headsets would give us full stereo (3D) vision and the head motion sensors would allow for the presentation of images corresponding to where we were looking so that we could fully immerse ourselves into the viewing experience.   As my column then observed, there was even a recently introduced magazine exclusively dedicated to this new medium. 

So, what happened?  Here we are seventeen years later and there is nothing resembling the products being brought to market in 1993 – or anything resembling evolved versions of these technologies.  It seemed like such a good idea.  Even some of the large consumer electronics companies were beginning to jump onto the bandwagon.  Unfortunately, for all this enthusiasm a few “minor” problems began to emerge.  One of these “minor details” was that the viewing experience was giving some users motion sickness.  Since the artificial visual immersion environment was disconnected from the actual physical environment of the user, there was a sensory conflict created and for many users this led to discomfort similar to that of a bad carnival ride experience. 

Not all that much was written about these problems, but over the next year or two “virtual reality” products faded into oblivion.

Today, in the midst of unbridled enthusiasm about 3D movies and 3D TV for the home, it feels like swimming against a strong current to make a few cautionary comments about what may happen as we continue to push this new technology into more general use.   But let’s be brave and give it a try anyway.

First, it’s useful to recognize that all of the excitement over 3D has been created with movies that are computer-generated animations and/or in the realm of science fiction.  For these movies, an artificial environment is perfectly acceptable and special effects are what we enjoy.  Reality is suspended and the visual experience can be whatever we want it to be.  And while so engrossed, in the movie theater setting, we don’t have an actual physical environment around us to observe for comparison.       

But even in a movie-theater setting, how will we respond if we try to duplicate the 3D experience with a movie that is not an animation or computer generated?  That may prove to be much more challenging.  Real environments familiar to us will not look “quite right”.  The 3D stereo effect that is incomplete to our visual system will become a distraction rather than adding to the viewing experience.  It will be interesting to see if a conventional movie, such as Blind Side for example, will be made in the next few years -- and be successful -- in 3D.   In the meantime, we can certainly continue to enjoy the fantasy experiences of computer-generated science fiction type movies in 3D. 

Now, comes that hard part.  Can we bring 3D TV into the home and be successful in doing it?  Can it become a normal viewing experience?  Or will we repeat the “virtual reality” experience all over again?

There are several challenges that may be hard to overcome.  The first is the requirement to wear polarizing or active shutter glasses for any currently known 3D technology.  The auto-stereoscopic methods are simply not useable yet and no one knows what to do to make them good enough for general use.   But the real obstacle may be the smaller screen and the ambient surroundings that create a visual system conflict.  This will be much more pronounced for TV than during a theater viewing experience.  TV viewing in 3D will appear to be like looking into a diorama or through a window.  So rather than becoming a part of the scene, it will appear that we are in a disconnected location looking from the outside in.  A “window into the world” is perhaps not so bad with stationary scenes but when the camera is moving this may become quite disconcerting.  As with all viewing experiences, some people will adapt better than others, but the visual conflicts introduced may cause many to simply quit using 3D technology.

Over the years, 3D stereoscopic photography has had its moments of enthusiasm.  When I was about eleven years old, I remember collecting Viewmaster disks of various vacation spots.  My favorite was one from Carlsbad Caverns.  But those times are gone.  Will they come back?  Indeed they may – but I think only briefly. 

Once the current unbridled enthusiasm dies down, we may find that 3D TV has a number of significant challenges to overcome.  The video game enthusiasts and the sports fans may not be enough to carry 3D TV through to a sustainable product implementation.  Nevertheless, the attempts of companies to bring products to market and their promotion of them will be great fun to watch. 

It is always difficult to take positions that go against popular wisdom.  The tide of enthusiasm wants to sweep up everything in its path.  Yet enthusiasm for a bad idea will not lead to a sustainable result.  Can 3D TV in the home be a sustainable technology?  As you can see, I have serious doubts. 

Are you ready to jump on the bandwagon and purchase the first 3D TV product that comes to market?  Or are you willing to wait and see how all this plays out?   Let me know your thoughts.  You can contact me directly from this site, directly by e-mail at silzars@attglobal.net, or by telephone at 425-898-9117.