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3D Glasses: It's Not "if", It's "How"!

A look at the leading opinions about 3D glasses and what they stem from.

One of the tradeoffs of being Canadian is Marshall McLuhan is required reading.  I'd bet good money that even if you didn't study Communications at a Canadian university, and were instead working to become a medical doctor, McLuhan would find a way to make it into your curriculum.  That's Canada for you!

One of the contributions McLuhan is most famous for is the statement that "the media is the message".  The idea is that different forms of media like a newspaper, the Internet, television, etc. all have a nature or characteristic that makes them more appropriate for some forms of content, and not for others.  It's pretty obvious now, but back in the day - it was a major breakthrough in understanding how to best design and mix content and media.

Stereoscopic 3D is only now coming to grips with its own McLuhan era, but instead of it being a broader understanding of media (3D) and message (video games, movies, broadcast, etc.), it is much more focused on a part of the media - in this case, the 3D glasses.

I would argue that out of all the criticism pointed towards 3D, the glasses are treated as the leading handicap for making this technology successful.  Let me share with you some of the leading remarks from some popular online publications:

“Not that the whole dorky 3D glasses thing is any sort of a slam-dunk proposition, of course. But I've spent some time playing around with…” – The Tech Report

“To view the 3rd dimensional broadcast, you’ll need the dorky looking wearable 3D optics to decode the video content…” – Slash Gear

“…includes special drivers to access the 3D vision inside many PC and console games, as well as those dorky 3D glasses.” – Tom’s Guide

“…and this one requires you to wear a pair of dorky 3D glasses…” – Ubergizmo.com

“…it still requires you to wear glasses—dorky ones…” – Popular Mechanics.com

“In order to make the picture 3D, you have to wear the dorky glasses supplied…” – T3.com

“…3D glasses still have the dorky feel to them though the company says they are modelled after modern sunglasses…” – blog.wired.com

There is something about this media consistency that scares me.  I have never seen technology described in such an organized and uniformly sarcastic way.  The same "dorky" word choice and attitude across the media spectrum - it's bizarre!  I have some ideas around this, and I'll work to discuss them in another blog.  In case you are wondering, no - I don't think the gaming media have been assimilated by an anti-3D Borg invasion.

I will say that a big part of the problem is the human imagination.  To this day, 3D is associated with Nintendo's ancient Virtual Boy and Sega's Master System.  When the story first broke about Sony supporting stereoscopic 3D technology, the press covered it by putting red/blue anaglyph glasses on people.  Is this what people think of when they are asked about glasses?  Does this impact their answer?  Something to think about.

Given the media response, our industry was faced with a paradox.  How is it that the pundits were nearly 100% against 3D, but consumers were flocking to 3D movie theaters around the world?  Are 3D glasses so different from the darkened specs people wear at the beach?  Is it possible that the media was not (is not?) reflecting the opinions of their readers and viewers?  We had to find out.

At the end of 2008, we began our first U-Decide Initiative.  We wanted to figure out what traditional 2D and experienced stereoscopic 3D gamers think of 3D, and where the big differences were if any.  In total, we had 714 respondents with 60% being traditional 2D gamers, and 40% being experienced stereoscopic 3D gamers.  With McLuhan in mind, the findings proved very interesting.

First, it's not a question of "are you willing to wear 3D glasses".  That's like asking "are you willing to stand in the rain"?  Not very appealing in itself.  On the other hand, once you add a context like, "will you stand in the rain to wait for a bus", the answers get more meaningful.

By providing a context, we learned that 3D glasses are very much acceptable depending on the choice of content.

For traditional 2D gamers, only 12% of respondents objected to 3D glasses while playing video games.  This climbed marginally to 16% for Blu-Ray 3D movies.  The biggest jump happened for traditional broadcast television where 28% were against wearing 3D glasses.

While the proportions are the same, existing stereoscopic 3D gamers were much more forgiving with 3% objecting to glasses for games, 4% for Blu-Ray, and 12% for broadcast television.

We think the reason 3D broadcast television is more challenged is because people like to multitask while they watch TV.  For example, I like to browse the Internet on my PDA while watching the news, and darkened glasses would get in the way of that.  Another problem is 3D broadcast television didn't really exist yet, so respondents had nothing to relate to.

Now that some top broadcasters are making 3D content available, and a range of 3D HDTVs  and displays are available, it will be interesting to see what people think of the glasses.  While I don't want to tarnish the results, we are working to capture this information by asking the question in multiple ways and with different conditions.

The good news is the original numbers are still holding up in their own way.  According to NPD Group, only 10% of those surveyed criticized 3D glasses as looking silly (i.e. "dorky").  Instead, the leading objection by 41% of respondents is that customers are worried there won't be enough glasses to go around.  That's a very different type of problem, isn't it?

I know what you are thinking: what about this glasses-free technology that Nintendo is using?  I want that in my TV!  Er, no.  Not yet, anyway.

The Nintendo 3DS has been getting its share of press because it is an auto-stereoscopic 3D solution that doesn't need special glasses.  Yes, the display has been very well received.  Unfortunately, for the consumer markets, it is only practical for small sized displays.

Auto-stereoscopic 3D requires viewing at a fixed angle, and it cuts the horizontal resolution in half so 50% of the pixels are seen by the left eye, and 50% are seen by the right.  You can add more viewpoints, but this reduces the screen's resolution even further.  This is why it is best suited for cell phones, mobile gaming systems, and 3D camera displays.

Large auto-stereo displays are very expensive to manufacture, and the fixed viewing angles are not conducive for the living room.  Instead, these displays are usually reserved for 3D signage which can easily run for $10,000 and up and do not require high resolution to be effective.

For these reasons, 3D glasses have a secure future until the next breakthrough comes along.  They are relatively cheap to make, they usually don't sacrifice resolution, and it's easier for the display makers to increase their screen brightness than to reinvent the whole wheel.  For now.

I can't paint a perfectly rosy pictures for the glasses because there are some instances that do make them uncomfortable.  For example, I've recently been playing games with quality headphones that have big leather Princess Leia cups that go around the ears.  It's a great experience, but it's not a comfortable mix.  It would be good if there was a cut-out wedge for glasses to easily fit through.

Another caveat is that for PC gamers, the keyboard is harder to see while playing in 3D mode.  It's not a big deal, but it helps to pay a little extra for a lit keyboard.

Price is a factor too.  How much is too much for 3D glasses?  How many do people really need to complete their 3D entertainment system?

I will finish by saying that while 3D glasses will be a fact of life for 3D gaming for some time to come, we have much bigger fish to fry.  Standards, quality expectations, availability of content, consumer education - even the willingness to work together as an industry - all rank much higher in my book as challenges that need to be overcome.

If time permits, check out the current U-Decide Initiative.  We are very curious to see if or how opinions have changed, especially now that the 3D technology is more widely available and more content is around the bend.  Both traditional 2D and experienced stereoscopic 3D gamers are welcome to participate, and the preliminary results will be revealed at GDC Online in October during one of the 3D Summit presentations.

Thanks for reading!  If you like what you see, I'll do something new next week.  I have some ideas.

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