Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Avatar: what to make of 3D projection?

My son and I went to see Avatar on the big screen. In 3D. I don't usually go to the theater (I'm rather attached to the "rewind" button on my remote), but this was an experience we couldn't replicate at home. I was very impressed with how far the technology had come along. Now, looking back, I'm wondering how soon this technology will make it into every living room. Not very soon, I'd venture.

Update 1/11/10: Perhaps I was obtuse when I wrote this. I never considered how this technology could be used in gaming and VR programs in which the scene responds to user input. That could turn out to be very interesting, indeed. But regarding its use in more passive applications like movies and static video, I still think this new medium has little to offer.

The main obstacle to fast adoption is that you need special glasses to view such a display device; conversely, without the glasses, the viewing is horrible. That's one downside of this stereoscopic 3D display technology. So what's on the upside? What's the great value-add that would make putting up with the glasses worthwhile?

Immersion. The 3D experience feels more real than the 2D one. It takes the viewer a half-step further into the screen. A step closer into a virtual reality, a simulacrum. But is it [closer]?

While watching Avatar, I was surprised at how often I would mentally step back (unconsciously) from the screen and watch the walls of the theater instead. It was as if my mind preferred to frame the experience inside the cinema, instead of inside the movie itself. What was going on? I later mused.

In order to experience the 3D immersion, you need to surrender your eyes to the movie. Surrender, in the sense that once you have mentally stepped into the screen, your eyes must follow the action on the screen; they cannot wander about in the simulacrum. You must place yourself and your eyes at the mercy of the camera. It is as if the camera were one of those birds in Avatar you're riding, with your head and eyes fixed in a brace: you only have a narrow field of view ahead. (And unlike the characters in the movie, you cannot control the bird.) You must resist the expectation of freedom the mind is so accustomed to in a 3 dimensional world; for as soon as you try to exercise that freedom you are awakened from the illusion, and you perhaps find your eyes wandering off on the walls of the movie house.

Not only must you not forget to keep your eyes on the screen once immersed a half-step into it, you must also try to keep your eyes from trying to focus on projected objects that are meant to be out-of-focus. For example, a petal descending inches before the "camera lens" may have been intentionally left out-of-focus so that it obstructs less of the background. But if curiosity begets you and you try to focus on the petal, I speculate one of two things might happen: (a) your failure to focus breaks the illusion, the suspension of disbelief that maintains the psychological immersion, or (b) you maintain the immersion but blame your tired eyes for not being able to focus.

So it would appear current 3D projection technology requires of the viewer some of the same mental rigor that is necessary to ride a bird in Pandora.

And glasses, aside, do we give up anything when we switch to this 3D medium? I wonder. Quite a lot, I imagine. For the traditional motion picture is less of a technology than it is of a language, an art form, cultivated over generations. Much of that language is a play on the medium's limitations. The composition of the picture, think of golden ratios, for example, is only realized against the bounds defined by the edges of the screen. Moreover, as our minds have become more introspective, more self-reflective, we have developed a more self-aware narrative, the camera behind the camera, the eye that sees the eye that's seeing. A meta language that describes itself and sees its reflection. A way of thought that cherishes its ability to step back and see itself--in a sense, an ability to step out of an immersing experience, the opposite of immersion. (It's this cultivated mental ability that makes the sports bar possible.) This new 3D medium, on the other hand, is like a mirror that breaks when it sees itself in it.

In summary I'm not particularly fond of the 3D technology on offer for two reasons. One, there is little extra information that can be gleaned from it that was not already present in its 2D version (I doubt there is any detail that would have been lost on a viewer watching the flat version of Avatar). And if it is not about the information delivered, then it must be about how it's delivered. Which leads us to Two, the experience itself: impressive as it is, it adds little value once its novelty has worn off. That's because we already know how to immerse ourselves in so many mediums: the novel, the play, the radio, not to mention the 2D motion picture. The technology offers little that viewer's mind cannot already synthesize from its "flatter" 2D version.

As for Avatar, itself, aye.. the story line itself presents an artful play on the stereoscopic medium's own limitations. How fitting that the viewer is made to identify with a paraplegic protagonist! And even more fitting that the plot itself involves the very concept of immersion: the medium's inability to visually frame itself is compensated by the eye-behind-the-eye theme in the narrative. A beautiful production. But to draw a line from here to the everyday use of this new medium, I think, is overreaching. It'll be more like a difficult brush few can master how and when to use.