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Trailblazing In 3D: Does Practicality Match Potential? (Part 3 on the Evolution of 3D Technology)

March 14, 2010

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This final post of a three-part series explores the spectrum of applications for 3D technology. What sparked the fascination with 3D imagery during its inception? What are the ways in which 3D is providing social impact today? What do the near and far futures hold for 3D technology?


A Retrospect of 3D
Modern Applications
Forecasting the Future

When most of us hear the term ‘3D,’ we probably envision:  sitting in a dark movie theater, wearing geeky glasses, and watching images burst from the screen.  Some of those movies may have been visually impressive (think Avatar), while others might have left you with a headache (think Spy Kids 3D).

More feature films are now being produced in 3D format.  Television is also taking the plunge into the market this year.  The sudden revival of 3D entertainment is adding new and exciting visual elements to media, but that’s not all 3D is capable of achieving.

The current applications of 3D technology extend far beyond entertainment applications.  There are many ways in which 3D imagery is impacting society on a global scale.  From advertising and fashion, to dentistry and ultrasound, innovative uses are benefiting these professions along with many others.

Both gratification and growth are endeavors that encompass the timeline of 3D imagery technology.  The method of producing the illusion of depth, or stereoscopy, was developed over a century ago.  At the time the applications of 3D images were primarily for pleasure and entertainment.  The ways in which 3D technology are utilized today carry more widespread social impact.  The outlook for the future may very well embody both objectives.

A Retrospect of 3D

The origins of 3D imagery trace back to the nineteenth century.  The earliest introduction of stereoscopy technology is credited to Sir Charles Wheatstone, an English scientist and inventor.  In 1833, Wheatstone developed the idea of presenting slightly different images to the eyes through a device called a ‘reflecting mirror stereoscope.’  This stereoscope was a handheld device, fashioned like binoculars, that contained prismatic lenses.

The two-dimensional images, known as stereographs, were positioned side-by-side, approximately two-and-a-half inches apart.  Each image corresponded to the appropriate eye.  When viewed through the stereoscope device, the brain combines the two images to produce an illusion of depth.


Sir David Brewster, a Scottish scientist, introduced the Brewster Stereoscope in 1849.  The handheld device, which he initially called the ‘lenticular telescope,’ was based largely on the principles of Wheatstone’s device.  The Brewster model utilized lenticular lenses instead of prisms which allowed for a much smaller device.  In 1851, commercial models of Brewster’s device were introduced at the Great Exposition in London.  The production of stereo photography began to flourish soon after.

The introduction of stereoscopy in America is credited to physician and professor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.  In the 1860s, he developed a more streamlined and economical version of the viewing device.  Interestingly, Holmes did not patent his idea.  The stereoscope sparked enormous popularity in the U.S. as Americans’ fascination outgrew that of Europeans.

The Brewster and Holmes stereoscopes provided templates for William Gruber and Harold Graves.  In 1939, the duo collaborated to form the company View-Master.  A similar handheld device, the View-Master was intended as an alternative to scenic postcards.  It quickly grew to huge popularity as a children’s toy.

The application of stereoscopic imaging was largely for entertainment purposes, but did provide other benefits.  The U.S. Geological Survey utilized 3D still photography for informational purposes.  Hundred of stereoscopic pictures were taken in the early 1900s as a way to provide a visual history.  The photographs consisted of notable landmarks and locations throughout the western U.S.

Brewster Stereoscope

The use of 3D imagery as entertainment began to emerge in moving pictures as well.  The first anaglyphic motion picture, known as the plastigram, was first conceived in 1889.  Red and green filters were applied to anaglyphic images and displayed on glass slides.  The viewer even had the option of selecting from two possible endings, the green ‘happy’ filter or the ‘red’ tragic filter.

The intrigue of depth illusions also made its way to the theatrical stages of Victorian Era London.  In the early 1860s, Henry Dircks and John Henry Pepper devised a technique for projecting lifelike 3D images onto a stage.  Dubbed Pepper’s Ghost, the technique captivated audiences with its amazing spectacle.  The ghostlike images would appear from nowhere and seemingly interact with live actors.  Pepper’s Ghost would become the precursor for modern holographic projection.

The early historical applications of 3D technology primarily focused on entertaining.  The visual spectacles and innovations continued to amaze mass audiences and viewers.  The decades ahead would, however, incorporate the ‘magic’ of 3D in more visceral ways and much more useful means.
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Modern Applications

The recent history of 3D imagery includes the application in various industries such as aeronautics, automotive, and architecture. CAD, or computer-aided design, allows researchers and designers to create 3D models through software tools.  These models allow the visualization, and even behavioral simulation of a multitude of objects.

The benefits for developers in the aeronautics or the automotive industries are tremendous based on the magnitude of their professions.  Even the fashion industry has benefited from 3D modeling technology.  Leading firms have incorporated imaging technology to create 3D models of – you guessed it – runway models.  Based on these conceptions, they can design clothing that properly conforms without cutting a single piece of fabric.

Melanoma cell, A 3D imaging method being developed by the U.S. National Cancer Institute

The ‘magic’ of 3D has benefited various professions of the medical field as well.  Modern devices such as sonograms produce actual 3D representations of internal human functions.  Utilizing ultrasound technology, images are conceived through sound reflection mechanisms.  These sonogram images are widely used to view the stages of pregnancy.

Dentistry has also incorporated 3D modeling techniques into numerous practices worldwide.  Dentists can now conduct procedures for crowns quicker than ever.  Instead of creating physical impressions of a patient’s tooth, a computerized 3D system scans the tooth.  The new crown can be produced that same day, bypassing the need for a temporary one.

The impact of 3D is also evident in preparing for surgical procedures.  CAD technology enables surgeons to transform CT scans of anatomical structures into full-colored 3D models.  This allows them to visually study the specific structure of a patient’s anatomy prior to incision.

The advertising industry has also been a beneficiary of modern 3D technology.  Display cases that utilize the Pepper’s Ghost technique are appearing in many retail locations around the world.  These units project a fully interactive 3D hologram that consumers can experience within a store.  With a remote control, the user can rotate the image and alter its colors based on preference.

Holograms are also being projected onto the stage using the latest HDTV technology.  Just as John Henry Pepper enhanced the theatrical experience in the mid 1800s, 3D technology is providing new creative possibilities for live settings today.  The renowned Musion Eyeliner system takes the Pepper’s Ghost technique into the twenty-first century.  Lifelike holograms of people are projected into virtual concerts, promotion events, and advertising.

Of course, there are all of those exciting applications in the world of entertainment.  For the typical consumer, this is the role that 3D technology is most visible.  The ‘magic’ of 3D has successfully enhanced popular forms of media and venues including: movies, TV, videogames, and theme parks.

Fans attend "U2 3D" premiere during 2008 Sundance Film Festival

The movie Avatar has generated lots of buzz for a 3D revival.  A growing number of cinematic films are following suit and emerging in three-dimensional format.  High definition television manufacturers are introducing 3D capable models to the market this year.

Modern 3D imagery technology still manages to dazzle audiences with grand visual displays.  More importantly, the integration of 3D into other significant fields has produced positive impacts on a global scale.  Because of innovative 3D equipment and tools, many professions have experienced a growth of potential for providing services and care.
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Forecasting the Future

So, what is the future outlook of 3D?  Will it continue to have an influence as both a recreational and humanitarian apparatus?  Are there other feasible applications for 3D technology?  Will the technology play a role in future breakthrough innovations?

Breakthroughs may evolve through the development of new fields of study.  Emerging scientific disciplines, such as augmented reality, are likely to escalate in the coming decades.  Augmented reality is essentially the experience of looking through a real-time viewfinder of the physical world.  The viewfinder also provides additional visualizations and interactive features which supplement the physical image.

Augmented reality devices are already being developed and marketed to the public.  Technology, like acrossair, is available to consumers as a mobile phone application.  This mobile software may be the beginning of a dynamic collaboration between 3D principles and physical environments.

Augmented reality is reshaping mobile communication

That collaboration could lead to the replacement of traditional viewing hardware with interactive 3D displays.  If you ever watched the movie Minority Report, then you may recall seeing a conceptual version of this display.  With the use of 3D glasses, program windows and desktop icons would appear in space.  They could be controlled or manipulated through eye contact or pointing.

Simulated reality is another emerging field of study that incorporates principles of 3D technology.  The concept is to create an immersive simulation of ‘true’ reality.  It is not to be confused with virtual reality in which the user is aware of the artificiality.  The simulated reality experience would be indistinguishable from the real physical world we inhabit.

A fictional representation of simulated reality is the holodeck, a facility that renders artificial environments.  It was popularized in the television series Star Trek, and also featured in the movie The Matrix.

The basic construct of a holodeck is that of an enclosed room in which objects and people are simulated in a multi-dimensional environment.  The user would be immersed in a lifelike setting complete with sounds and smells.  The user would have the ability to interact with other seemingly conscious individuals.  This device of the future may someday be developed for training and recreational purposes.

The holodeck is still largely conceptual, but its development could enhance education and training

The holodeck may be a vision of the far future.  The most feasible and practical application of the near future may very well be for education.  Technology currently exists in classrooms that provide students with visually engaging instruction. Universities and technical schools are using digital projection systems to teach their students.

The educational application of 3D technology can provide a major social impact.  The ability to visualize challenging subjects such as anatomy, biology, and astronomy could make the learning curve much smoother for students.  Costs and content development are factors that would need addressed to realize the educational potential.

Another potential obstacle of technological progress may be vision.  You may be thinking that all of these conceived futuristic technologies are merely the products of imagination and science fiction.  This may be the case presently, but a lot of the tools and devices that exist today were inspired by works of  fiction.  Social necessities will greatly influence the research and future developments of innovative 3D imagery.

The potential for 3D technology is enormous, but its practicalities will determine mainstream consensus.  For the majority of skeptical consumers, 3D represents little more than eye candy.  With visual quality a frequent issue, it is still vying for acceptance in the entertainment market.  Yes, it is essentially nothing more than optical illusions – but, those illusions can be a springboard to realistic achievements.

Through innovative thinking, humans can contrive more tools and mechanisms than ever to make a difference in lives.  There are many present benefits from 3D technology.  There will be many future developments specifically for recreation.  Bettering society should also be a consistent goal that we strive for in 3D technology development.  Like any technology, the long-term significance of 3D imagery will be predicated on its social, cultural, and economic impacts.

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