Why 3D?

There has been much discussion for the past few years about “immersive media” and how to create it.  In fact, when I began my master’s degree program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, there was an entire track dedicated to immersive media (the tracks have since gone the way of all media – they’ve been combined into each other).  How we, as media creators, get to audience “immersion” is usually the main topic of debate.  Do we engage audiences with story?  With character?  With sound?  With physical installations and props? With stereoscopic 3D?  The broad answer, of course, is that all of these tools can lead us to greater audience immersion if they’re employed in a meaningful way.

With Seymour Deeply, I specifically wanted to explore stereoscopic 3D as a storytelling tool rather than as a “thrill effect” (much in the way it is being used in modern films like Martin Scorcese’s Hugo and Wim Wenders’ Pina).  3D has been used in motion pictures and theme parks for years, usually as way to shock or thrill the audience (Wender’s considers this “3D as roller coaster”) and I wanted to see if there were better ways of using s3D to place the audience (or in the case of interactive media, the player) into the storyworld.  In addition, I wanted to explore what advantages 3D has in interactive media compared to other, more traditional media.

3D has been used in games before, often as a puzzle mechanic, divorced from any connection to a narrative or as a “value added” last minute expansion to a game that was designed in 2D and converted through software to be rendered in stereo3D.  3D has not, however, particularly been used in interactive media to place a player more deeply into the setting of the game or the virtual world.  But stereoscopic 3D is how most of us view the real world. In games and other interactive media, we have been forced to rely on other depth cues like perspective, occlusion and motion parallax to give a sense that the virtual world in which we are playing is like our world.  Stereoscopy is a depth cue that we are used to in daily life, but we use it unconsciously because our worldview is constantly changing as we move through the world.  We see in three dimensions, but never have to stop and think “oh, I’m seeing three dimensions as I walk to the kitchen.”  In motion picture media, our world view may move (as we shift the camera around in games or film), but our sense of depth is still projected onto a flat plane.  Quite conversely, though, the traditional use of stereoscopy in motion pictures has been a completely unnatural conscious use and has been marketed to us as such (“in your face!”, “bleeding eyes 3D!”, etc.)  Really, do you want your eyes to bleed?! I hope to see stereo 3D become more widely accepted in all media when its use more closely matches our natural experience of it – viewing the world through two eyes that gives a greater sense of three dimensions without actively being conscious of the fact that we’re seeing all three dimensions.  One of the great advantages of stereoscopic 3D in interactive media comes from the fact that the images we see are being rendered in real time.  When combined with motion tracking hardware (a technique that has been used in virtual reality research for years), we designers can adjust the depth of stereo3D in real time, removing horrific “bleeding eye” moments and creating a more natural three-dimensional experience that more closely matches our experience of the real world.

I will often say, when discussing Seymour Deeply, that it “takes the work of virtual reality from the lab to the living room.”  I am not trying to make the leap that Seymour is a virtual reality experience in your living room, though.  I don’t think a player could ever truly lose themselves in the game to the point that they forget they are in their living room, especially when an arm slams into a bookcase (as has happened to me on many occasions while playtesting the game).  However, the tools of virtual reality that help embed and immerse a player deeply into a virtual world (stereoscopic vision, motion tracking, directional audio) are all now accessible to us in the consumer market at consumer prices.  Home surround sound systems have been with us for years. Stereoscopic TVs are dropping in cost and increasing in options.  The success of Microsoft’s Kinect and Nintendo’s Wii show that gestural control is not only possible in the home, but it breaks down barriers of play for people who are not “traditional” gamers.  Seymour Deeply attempts to push the boundaries of what is possible when the tools of virtual reality are brought into the home, shifting their use from research to recreation.

-Michael Annetta
April 15, 2012