Is 3D the Product of Hype?

3D may be popular right now, but does it have application for architects and AV designers in public spaces like retail, commercial properties, museums, and event centers?

There was a defining moment when watching entertainment in 3D went from goofy to amazing. It was the first time that the opening credits finished and the action rolled on the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster Avatar. Finally, slipping on a pair of special glasses was more than a cheap (and slightly weird) thrill.


The James Cameron film came out just as many of the world’s biggest consumer electronics brands were readying their first mass-market 3D HDTVs for release into retail.


Very suddenly, it seemed, 3D went from something a producer added for the novelty effect to something that just made a viewing experience better. The Masters tournament – about as staid and old-school as sporting events get – was abruptly available in 3D broadcasts.


Is all of this sudden 3D buzz the product of hype? Sure.


But does it work? Yes … in a “this-will-really-be-cool-when-it-gets-better” kind of way.


Does it have application for architects and AV designers in public spaces like retail, commercial properties, museums, and event centers?  The answer is a big, big maybe, and depends on lots of variables (in particular, the dynamics of the venue and the potential audience).


Before looking into the reasons, here’s a quick primer on the technology. There are two types of 3D: one requiring viewers to wear special eyewear, and the other being glasses-free.


Wearing glasses, viewers are looking at 3D in at least two ways. Anaglyph 3D is the 1950s-era technology that projects two images on a screen with two slightly different perspectives. Wearing red/blue glasses, each lens filters and delivers a different image, and the brain processes them as one 3D image. Polarized lenses do things a little differently, but have the same effect. The newest types of 3D, intended for 3D HDTVs, use active-shutter glasses. The glasses – which are nothing like the old paper-and-film glasses and cost more than $100 instead of pennies – flicker at very high speeds and block the view of one eye at a time so that each one sees only the frame from the custom TV signal meant for it. 


Quite differently, glasses-free 3D puts the lenses on the displays – using images that are interlaced on a screen so each eye sees different things based on the slightly different perspective. The displays use overlaid lenses known as lenticulars or parallax barriers to allow each eye to see different things, depending on viewing angle.

Opinions vary widely on where the world is heading – but the contact lens industry would barely exist if people enjoyed wearing glasses, so there’s a clue right there. There’s also considerable concern about the long-term impact of wearing glasses that steadily trick the eyes of viewers. Many 3D glasses users speak of eye strain and headaches by the end of movies and video-gaming sessions. 


What also holds back 3D adaptation – particularly outside the film and gaming industries – is the high cost and limited talent pool available to produce native 3D material or record events with it. Much of what’s released now in 3D is compromised, up-converted material that doesn’t reflect the real immersive 3D possibilities. Producing it takes specialty skills, time, and money.


Discussions on optimizing the use of digital screens in public areas (stores and large venues) are never focused around the technology at the start. Instead, we’re talking about and observing the dynamics of a space. Once we have an understanding of what’s going on, and the objectives of visuals, only then do we start talking and thinking about what technology to apply.


In a public setting, such as a large specialty or mass merchandiser store, large projection systems or 3D flat panel displays have our interest because research is suggesting that these displays have two to four times the stopping power of standard digital displays. That gets any retail marketer leaning forward in a meeting.


But any 3D efforts in retail or other places where people shop or pass through would almost certainly need to be glasses-free. Active-shutter glasses are far too valuable to just hand out, and the much cheaper, anaglyph lenses can only do a half-hearted 3D job that might actually hurt a brand or promotion more than help it. Facility operators will also pay a premium of at least 25 percent over conventional HDTVs to go 3D, and much larger special 3D projectors and screens can grow costs exponentially with the job scope and lighting conditions.


Glasses-free auto-stereoscopic displays are a more likely application, but there are challenges here as well. Auto-stereoscopic is far from a normal living room viewing experience. Brightness and sharpness can suffer, the 3D effects are often not as prominent, and these kinds of displays have something akin to a “sweet spot” (or “sweet spots”) where the images only look 3D from certain angles and distance limits. Outside the sweet spots, the visual experience can be disappointing.


Most of what’s been done so far has been for advertising and promotion. For example, in the UK earlier this year, outdoor ad giant ClearChannel worked with 3D Exposure to promote the new Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief film on 3D screens on high-traffic transit shelters. Last year, The History Channel worked with 3D vendor Magnetic 3D on a promotion for a new TV series on Africa that had four 3D displays on combination print/digital street-level promotions in New York City.


Magnetic 3D also worked with the NFL and the Miami Dolphins on glasses-free 3D put into the luxury suites for the 2010 Super Bowl, running a string of custom content and demonstrating what a viewing experience in sports stadium might look like soon. 


One of the most compelling works applied to architecture was put together late this spring in Amsterdam, where a historic building facade was used to promote the market launch of Samsung’s new 3D LED TVs. The special event used 3D projection mapping to digitally reveal the magic behind the facade to onlookers. The contours and shape of the building were mapped, and the projections were tied to it, making it come alive.


Arguably, it’s that big canvas of a facade or interior wall that offers the most opportunity to building and AV designers right now. But as 3D evolves, so will its many possibilities.


Dave Haynes is a founding partner of The Preset Group (, a digital signage and converging media consultancy.