By: Matthew Wailling, Director, Cordless Consultants
Published: 17th October 2011
Copyright Cordless Consultants © 2011
In reality the 3D screens we see today aren’t ‘real’ 3D; they’re stereoscopic displays, the origins of which can be traced back to Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838. With the first patent for 3D cinema applied for almost 100 years after Sir Charles produced his first stereoscopic image, it took a further 73 years for Avatar to arrive at the Odeon. But while technically not 3D, “a new, groundbreaking stereoscopic movie from director James Cameron” definitely doesn’t sound as good.
Screens today create a perception of 3D by presenting offset images that are displayed separately to each eye; the human brain combines them and perceives three-dimensional depth. Although the term ‘3D’ has become ubiquitous, dual 2D images are very different from displaying an image in three full dimensions. The only display capable of this is a holographic one. The main distinction is that with a stereoscopic screen, even if the viewer moves, no additional information about the 3D object is seen; you can’t look round the back.
The challenges associated with stereoscopic? Well, the obvious one is the need to carry (and be seen wearing) special specs—it’s not a great look. Then there’s the hassle and cost for IT professionals as glasses are just another thing for staff to lose or break. At a time when workers are more mobile, personal devices lighter and people want to carry less, I just can’t see widespread adoption by the typical worker. There are, of course, exceptions for particular work use: stereoscopic displays have clear applications in complex modelling and undeniable business benefit in immersive environments, but wider application to the desktop still feels clunky to me.
There is a second type of 3D screen available—autostereoscopic, which has optics built into the display, splitting the images directionally into the viewer's eyes, removing the need for glasses. This provides the opportunity for incidental viewing; product advertising through autostereoscopic signage could instantly become almost unavoidably eye-catching. But what of the commercial workplace? This year’s Consumer Electronics Show saw the launch of autostereoscopic laptops, including products from Toshiba and Sony. Initially, these will probably be bought by consumers for gaming and film-watching; most businesses will wait for the likes of MS Office to become 3D to justify the extra expense.
An issue with many autostereoscopic screens is the need to stand at a specific distance or angle to get the optimum 3D effect. While this presents a challenge for digital signage or point of sale use, where a target audience of multiple, moving people would need to see the screen at any one time, it’s less of an issue for laptop use. To improve the effect, many laptop screens now track a user’s eye position, adjusting the image constantly. As eye-controlled laptops are now reaching the market, also using eye-tracking cameras, it won’t be long before the two systems are combined to provide eye-controlled 3D laptops.
An issue with both stereoscopic and autostereoscopic is accessibility. A significant proportion of people are stereo blind—they cannot see 3D images. The Eye Care Trust estimates that could include up to 12% of the population—some six million in the UK. So the potential market is smaller than for other display evolutions such as HDTV.
While the ‘how’ 3D is an easier question to answer, the ‘why’, for the workplace at any rate, is less so. When examining new workplace technology there’s always the danger of being wowed by new features and forgetting to look for the benefits. Gesture control, as seen on the Xbox and Wii, is being explored as a control interface for business-driven applications (although this hasn’t got much further than turning a bathroom tap on without touching it in many workplaces). Outside of scientific research, manufacturing and specialist modelling, business and user benefits are harder to quantify.
The logical use is as part of digital signage and branding strategy for high-impact areas. But a word of warning: while digital signage can add value, it has to be owned and its content kept fresh. Few things look worse than digital signage that’s turned off or showing a screensaver or tired PowerPoint deck—even if the company logo does magically protrude a foot from the screen.
As the adage goes, “content is king”. Avatar remains the highest grossing film ever, with a global box office taking of $2.8bn. I suspect 3D played no small part in this, and after the initial awe subsided, many people commented that the story was rather, well, one-dimensional. Avatar 2 is scheduled for 2014 and I’ll wager at least one of those 2.8bn dollars that the sequel won’t create anything like the same impact. With audiovisual the commercial sector tends to follow the consumer market and 3D hasn’t yet had the consumer impact many expected (perhaps people are just easily bored?). Herein lies the problem. Some market analysts predict 85% of us will have had a 3D screen for over a year by the time Avatar 2 bursts out of cinema screens. So if anything, it will be old hat.
In choosing to adopt 3D therefore, as with any new technology, remember this simple checklist: purpose, cost, benefit, ease of adoption, longevity. Can you satisfy these criteria?
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