3D: Room for Improvement

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There’s a big new idea popping out of theater and television screens around the world. Well, it’s big, but it’s hardly a new idea. It’s also arguably not popping out of the screen. “It,” of course, is 3D.

With movies being filmed for (and converted to) the stereoscopic experience, television and video game makers followed suit and began cranking out programs and software that exploits the 3D technology. While the technology has certainly advanced beyond the red-and-blue-glasses days, there’s still potential that lies untapped. Or, quite possibly, it cannot be tapped with this current iteration of 3D tech.

At its current stage, 3D is still an illusion of depth that is a step down from pop-up books. Sure, you can get a passable sense of reality if you look at the center of the screen, but if you try to focus on any other object you’ll immediately spot the problem. The problem is that you can’t convincingly focus on any 3D element and see it as anything more than two flat, mismatched images. In the real world, your focus can switch from object to object. Hold a finger a foot away from your face, and then find something off in the distance to focus on. Close one eye and switch your focus from your chosen object to your fingertip. You’ll notice, if you switch back and forth, that your focus is always clear, but 3D doesn’t allow for this subtlety of vision.

Not that the film technique ever could. Directors have long used intentional unfocusing to draw attention to certain elements of their work, or to suggest a different mental state. The only way to realistically convey an illusion of fully-rotational 3D is a type of hologram projection.

Yet this isn’t the biggest flaw of 3D technology. The most important difference is that there is nothing in current 3D tech that can’t also be realized by other graphical means. 3D has yet to actually step into the third dimension and make its media something that can’t be experienced any other way. Take music, for instance. The arrangement of the notes in time is as important as how they are arranged to each other. Play the notes of any song at one instant, and you’ll get “noise.” There are certain things in music that can’t be replicated in painting, sculpture, or writing. Great advances in music and painting have been made when artists realized the limits of their works and embraced them. Take Terry Riley’s musical piece “In C,”  or any of Claude Monet’s later paintings. Not that every dissonant piece of music or every impressionist painting is a masterpiece, but there are things that can only be expressed in certain ways. You can watch a series of film stills, but you won’t catch the subtleties of music, camera work, and acting that the full film includes.

My personal favorite, the video game, can also provide a unique experience, though it’s my opinion that this experience is still underused in many modern games. I use the action/flight sim Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies as my example, because I feel it illustrates the point best. In the game, a narrative is presented as a series of clips in between gameplay missions. It isn’t until later on that the player realizes that unlike in other stories, the narrator and characters in the cutscenes aren’t even affiliated with the player avatar “Mobius One”; the characters in the cutscenes are actually the enemy pilots that the player will eventually have to shoot down. The impact of this revelation is heightened by the game’s nonexistent description of the player’s avatar (save for the referrals to the player as “male,” which might alienate some female players.) For the player enticed by the story, the experience becomes much more personal, as the only way to progress in the game is to ruin the lives of the characters he has bonded with.

The result of such a narrative twist, combined with the one-on-one intimacy that interaction invites, results in a unique experience that video games and similar pieces can use to draw distinction from other forms of media. My question is: what can be done in 3D that can’t also be done in other media? Directors have varied the intensity of the 3D effect to achieve different moods, as in the movie Coraline; yet the film is completely comprehensible and enjoyable without the 3D effects. The 3D might make for a more interesting and compelling work, but it isn’t necessary to enjoy the film. How could a film or game exploit this effect?

Film use may be difficult; after all, film is not nearly as interactive a medium as video games, and the 3D effect is all about immersion. Games with motion-detecting capabilities could  make use of the illusion, especially in a sports title. Whatever the solution may be, I think we have yet to see it.

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