The demise and rise of 3D media

3-D applications continue to evolve, but for commonplace office use, good old 2-D will do just as well. 3-D TV has died, movie-goers are rebelling against 3-D films, and software to create 3-D images is not as popular as the old 2-D version. A case in point: Prezi, the 3-D presentation software, has always had a distinct disadvantage when it came to increasing its user base. This has nothing to do with running Prezi presentations (called prezis) online, or downloading the .exe interface to run them offline. The problem has always been that the user has to think in terms of objects moving across a virtual field, rather than data on many separate fields or slides. Prezi allows users to display and navigate through information within a 2.5D or parallax 3D space on the Z-axis. In short, it is tricky. 

3-D presentations

Basically, in a prezi you can make move objects not only left, right, up and down, but inwards, outwards and sideways. It therefore creates the impression of depth and three-dimensionality. Ironically, something that was supposed to be intuitive – the world is three-dimensional after all – turned out to be completely counter-intuitive.

Due to this 3-D look, prezis are good for flashy, dramatic topics in Marketing, Sales, Entertainment, Media (and self-promotion, by the way), and any topic that involves process, change, movement or progression. It is quite unsuited for non-TED-type presentations that are heavy in content, words, facts, details and images. And most of the time in business, especially in the professions like Engineering, Law, Finance, etc., words and details are not only necessary but the only option when you have masses of information to work through and discussions have to be fast and focused.

Conversational presenting?

Prezi has now come up with Prezi Next, that is different from the previous versions (though not a lot) in that it lets you move freely between topics, depending on what interests your audience, something that they call “conversational presenting”. It is basically controlling (stopping, moving) between topics by using a remote that you click, in this instance a Logitech Spotlight presentation remote, which of course you have to buy and install the software for. This, for me, is a serious case of brand dilution but not unexpected, considering the shortcomings of the software.

Video of the Logitech Spotlight being used with a prezi.
Laser pointer and finger on the pause button, anyone?

Other than when you make a high-level pitch for new business, conversational presenting could be a waste of time in professional environments. Conversational presenting one of those fuzzy-feely invented terms that actually just means that every so often you have to stop talking to your audience and talk with them instead. That is the thing to do when you are trying to be persuasive, or when the subject is difficult or confusing.  But usually, there is no time for chatting. You need them to process the information and retain it. Prezi describes Prezi Next as having a structure “consisting of chapters that follow a path using connectors. Your overview will show the titles of each topic, and once you enter a topic, your subtopics will be revealed.” Doesn’t that sound exactly like Powerpoint?

3-D images

There are certain things for which 3-D is indispensable – Geological modelling, simulations of otherwise inaccessible or dangerous situations like underground workings or disaster areas, visualizations of building designs, images of diseases and structures inside the human body, 3-D printing and online gaming.

But in business, 3-D images are problematic. It’s great technology, but it is not always effective. For some people, 3-D images just don’t work, they feel unnerved or nauseous when they look at them, and some people have to learn how to look at and interpret 3-D images. It does not always come naturally.

How the brain processes information about images

When humans look at an image, they make sense of what they see “through bottom-up sensory and top-down cognitive functions”. (Eric R. Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, Columbia University Press, 2016) Most of how we see involves a step-wise process towards the recognition of an image, systematically, neuron to neuron, from the imagery and problem-solving brain networks, down to the networks of perception where things are ambiguous and abstract. The process is mostly linear, and perfectly suited to the interpretation of two-dimensional images. It’s how we – and our eyes – have evolved.

There is no such thing as true 3-D, due to our eyes.  The reason our visual perception cannot be called true or full 3-D is because we are limited by how our eyes work: we cannot see behind objects or inside their interiors, unless they are transparent, so we do not have full access to the 3-D information in front of us. We only can see those 2-D surfaces that are not covered (occluded) by something else. So even if you are seeing a tree with other trees behind it and a shadowed, rounded trunk, it is still a 2-D image that your brain is interpreting as having depth (foreground, background). Some people call our ability “2½-D or Pseudo-3D”. Prezi is described as navigation in a 2.5D space. Similarly, in gaming, developers use 2-D isometric graphics to create a false 3-D perspective.

This is why, to “see” 3-D in a film, and perceive the depth, you need special glasses. When you view a 3-D image, many factors come into play, such as binocular disparity, monocular depth cues, motion parallax, relative scale, aerial and linear perspective, and texture gradients. All this is rather a lot of effort to enhance our human visual “shortcomings”.

3-D drawing

The furore over Microsoft wanting to kill off its old “Paint” app, is another example of a simple 2-D app being easier to use – and more readily used at work.

In June 2017, Microsoft announced that it decided to keep the traditional Paint app, in some format at least, and making the application available, for free, in its Windows Store. This is in addition to “Paint 3D” being available in the Creators Update. Users didn’t want Paint 3D as much as the old, stable tool of Paint. “You can accomplish two main tasks with Paint 3D: constructing your own 3D objects, and placing them within a scene. Remember the dioramas you made in elementary school? That’s Paint 3D in a nutshell.”  Well, now you know. If you ever want to make penguins or a diorama, that’s what you need.

Paint 3D welcome screen, part of a tutorial published in PC World.

3-D television

Another space where 3-D never caught on is television. 3-D television came and went years ago. It was heralded as the breakthrough technology of the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

“Hot on the heels of James Cameron’s eye-opening Avatar, 3-D HDTVs were everywhere on the show floor. One year later, at CES 2011, 3-D was back again – this time iterating. We saw bigger 3-D HDTVs, 3-D displays that didn’t require special glasses, and camcorders that captured 3-D content. But where is 3-D now [in 2012]? It’s certainly not showing up big on our CES 2012 radar, and now looks like over-hyped technology in hindsight – especially to those of us who always thought 3-D’s natural home was in the movie theater, not the living room. Indeed, a variety of obstacles – high prices, a lack of 3-D content, and uncomfortable viewing experiences – have kept 3-D TV adoption in the single digits nationwide.” (Christina Bonnington in Wired magazine, Why 3-D TV went from CES Darling to consumer Reject, rtrvd. 2017-09-13)

Direct TV stopped broadcasting 3D programmes in 2012 while ESPN stopped in 2013. Fewer and fewer 3D TVs were sold and soon TV manufacturers stopped making them. Vizio stopped production in 2014 and was followed by others. In January 2017, the last two major television manufacturers still producing 3D televisions, Sony and LG, announced they would stop all 3D support.

3-D films

3-D movies also are nothing to go gaga over these days. The experience of being slightly nauseous, dizzy and distracted, with no choice of where to focus your eyes, seems to continue putting people off. CNET reported that “…as much as the movie studios would like the opposite to be true, 3D movies are handicapping the theatergoing experience and there’s almost never a time you should pay extra for it.” They noted a drop on the revenues of 3-D movies in 2014 and listed many reasons why watching 3-D movies is a “miserable experience”. (Rtrvd. 2017-09-13)

The slow-down in the adoption of 3-D in visual presentations has gone hand in hand with the growth in Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality applications.

Virtual Reality

Facebook and Google’s 360 degree images provide a degree of virtual surrounding, though they are just two-dimensional images in panoramic or stereoscopic format. They are, however, much more revealing than plain photos (since they are longer landscapes and you can tilt them up and down) and as a result, they can be quite fun and nice to look at. However, this development caused a pause in the downward spiral of 3-D apps – the return of the 3-D camera. In July 2017, Google announced that it is working on a 3-D camera, but not as you think of it.

The Lucidcam VR 3D camera. (Screen shot from website)

“Google is attempting to resurrect 3D photography and filmmaking to complement a new approach to virtual reality called VR180. Google defines VR180 as a stereoscopic 3D image with a 180-degree field of view. To date, most VR cameras (think Ricoh’s Theta and the Nikon KeyMission) capture a 360-degree field of view but as a flat, two dimensional image. Google’s innovation is to trade away the completely spherical view to add greater dimensionality–and thus, greater realism, since a 3D image looks more realistic when viewing VR content in a headset. YouTube has already been updated to support the new format and Google says it is working with Yi Technology, Lenovo and LG to build VR180- compatible cameras. They’ll also be certifying other cameras as VR180 capable. The first such product is from Z Cam. The LucidCam may also fit the bill as may the Vuze from Humaneyes.” (Greg Scoblete, Remember the 3D camera? It’s back, in PDN Photo District News, July 17, 2017, rtrvd. 2017-10-13)

Conclusion

But, it’s early days. The trick will be to get the majority of consumers to like and use this new camera, so that it becomes ubiquitous. Many new technologies have failed, some because they were inventions looking for a dominant application or use, like the Segway (…and Prezi?) Besides, the human condition and its limitations are unchanged.

Even after all these years, I do not see large corporations using Prezi as a standard application in their software suites, or requiring prospective employees to have it in their set of skills. The cure for “death by Powerpoint” is just to make better Powerpoint presentations and avoid the obvious mistakes. In most cases, if you mention the word “prezi”, people look at you as if you were asking them for some kind of present. I have run experiments, showing people presentations using different formats, and in each case, the audience preferred the conventional ones. They might not have known what they were watching, but they instinctively felt that the prezi was “strange” or “confusing”.

The question you have to ask yourself is: If Prezi disappeared, like Paint almost did, would you miss it? My answer is no. As far as I am concerned, Prezi has had its day in the sun.

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