RECLAIMING 3-D

In 1980 or thereabouts, a change occurred to computer graphics technology.  It was an important one for me personally and for my company StereoGraphics because it allowed us to create stereoscopic displays based on raster graphics so useful for industry and science. Prior to that time high-end applications for computers outputted images that looked like wire frames or line drawings.  These were variously known as calligraphic, stroke or vector displays.  I remember playing an arcade game in 1981.  It was called “Tank Command,” and cast and crew on the set of Rottweiler Dogs of Hell at EO Studios in Shelby South Carolina got quite involved with it.  Between takes we played “Tank Command,” with its eerie green lines against a stygian background.  The farther away the object was, the dimmer were the lines – that was how depth was conveyed – that and perspective and relative size.   These displays had an electron beam that was steered to write lines on the inside of a green phosphored cathode ray tube and it built up an image that perceptually added up to one that didn’t flicker and appeared to be integral even though portions of it were written at different times.  

Displays like this were used by the military for molecular modeling and other CG applications.  In those days people were sitting at home watching television and television uses raster graphics in which an engraving-like structured image is produced.  Raster graphics are with us today, and they provide the basis for modern high-def television and the digitally projected cinema. 

When raster graphics were introduced for computer graphics the marketing people at companies like Silicon Graphics and Evans & Sutherland began to use the term “3-D” to describe the new look.  The images were now more like the kinds of images we’re used to looking at in movies or on television and the marketing people called these new displays – which were the same kind of displays that had been used for television for 40 years – “3-D displays.”  “3-D,” which means “three-dimensional,” is an apt description for photographically created displays, or those that are drawn or painted, because they are three-dimensional.  They only lack one depth cue amongst many – the stereoscopic depth cue – which you can see only with two eyes. Given this marketing logic you could have said that I Love Lucy reruns were in 3-D. 

Prior to this by some thirty years, in the 1950s the term “3-D” was used to describe the stereoscopic cinema, and if you asked just about anybody at that time and for thirty years thereafter what “3-D” meant, they would tell you that the term described 3-D movies – because that was the way the term had been used.  But, as I have taken pains to describe, the computer graphics people appropriated the term, which led to years of confusion for us at StereoGraphics when we were trying to describe what we sold – namely 3-D or stereoscopic displays.  People have tried different names.  They would say “3-D stereoscopic,” or lately I’ve noticed that people want to say “S3-D.”  There’s no way to legislate usage – not in English.  The French Académie can do it but, gratefully, here it’s still a free-for-all.  

It’s payback time. The last few years have seen an amazingly successful renaissance of the stereoscopic cinema and now there is the coming onslaught of stereoscopic television.  Or should I say 3-D movies and television?  The time has come when I can look you in both eyes and say: 3-D means stereoscopic. The dominance of stereoscopic media – in particular the stereoscopic cinema – makes for a decisive argument.  Case closed.

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