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The Potential for Stereoscopic 3D in Education


One relatively old technology idea that has enjoyed a resurgence in the last couple of years is stereoscopic 3D. 3D in the cinema is a technology that has waxed and waned in a faddish sort of way over the previous decades. James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), a high budget, highly successful blockbuster film by a top notch action director making artful use of 3D led the most recent charge in bringing back 3D as a trend.

While most examples of 3D in film since then have used the technology in much less skillful ways, the tech is still going relatively strong in theatres, its staying power buoyed by higher revenue from 3D films and aided the appearance of 3D HDTVs and 3D Blu-ray players on the home theatre front.

So 3D has made a comeback over the past four years in entertainment. But what about the prospects for more serious applications, for learning? The subject of this week’s blog post is the potential for the use of 3D content in learning / training.

The post will look at:

  • Factors converging to make more widespread use of 3D content possible
  • Potential learning benefits achievable through judicious and effective use of 3D content
  • Types of subject matter content that would be potentially amenable to instruction through 3D video
  • Challenges faced in making 3D content used in a more widespread fashion
  • Considerations for effective use of stereoscopic 3D in learning and training

First a note that when I talk about 3D here, I am making a distinction between older Pixar-style 3D animation (computer generated animation with lighting effects that make the images look “3-dimensional” but made for viewing on a 2D screen) and stereoscopic 3D, which uses two slightly different images (one for each eye), and glasses (either active with shutters or passive using polarized lenses) to simulate what the eyes and brain would experience looking at a real object, simulating an immersive and realistic experience. This article is focused on stereoscopic 3D.

Factors Leading to Increased Use of 3D

There are a number of developments causing a convergence toward an increased potential to use stereo 3D content for learning. These developments include:

  • Resurgence of interest in recent years 3D in cinema. A mixed bag for quality has slowed the growth of popularity of it in the theatres, but approximately 1/4 of box office dollars still come from 3D screenings. Some artists really have learned to work the distinct visual language of 3D in an artistic, compelling, integrated way and have made films oriented toward use of it that brings added value. Others tack it on as an afterthought, diluting the concept.
  • Increased accessibility and affordability of professional 3D camera rigs, as well as relatively affordable consumer-oriented dual-lens 3D camcorders. Basic 3D capable camcorders are currently in the hundreds of dollars to a little over a thousand range. For a while now, YouTube has allowed the uploading of user-generated 3D content.
  • Accessibility and affordability of TVs and monitors that can display 3D. Though 3D is no longer being used so much as a dominant selling point, the reality is that most newer TVs include 3D as an option by default. A quick search on the Future Shop website shows 3D capable HD LED TVs from top tier manufacturers like Samsung between $750 and $1000. And obviously as technology advances these prices will continue to fall.
  • Affordability of 3D blu-ray players. A similar search shows these devices selling for as little as a bit over $100.
  • Accessibility and affordability of office and school type projectors that can project 3D content. ($1500-2000)
  • Availability of software for editing 3D content (After Effects, e.g.).
  • Increased diffusion of expertise in 3D cinematography – understanding of principles behind stereoscopy and how to compose scenes for 3D video. This is an important factor for ensuring not only a quantity of content, but quality too.

Potential roadblocks

There are several potential roadblocks that need to be overcome, however:

  • Getting access to quality camera equipment
  • The need to develop knowledge of how to properly set up 3D shots and shoot in 3D
  • Hassle of glasses; active shutter type glasses need a power source and are expensive, polarized passive glasses by design filter out half the light, making for a dimmer, less vibrant picture
  • Expense of screens (though this is falling)
  • Limited amount and varied quality of content. Some 3D content is high quality, though much is riding the bandwagon, faddish. Few learn effectively how to use it, working with its strengths and weaknesses, and planning the visual composition of shots from the start with good use of 3D in mind, so as to make something that adds value from what would have been possible in 2D

Potential benefits of 3D

So why use 3D content for learning or training, beyond use as some sort of fad or gimmick? There are several potential benefits, given use of the technique in a meaningful way:

  • Immersiveness
  • Learner engagement
  • Increased level of connection with content
  • Sense of realistic “presence” of what is being seen
  • Enhanced ability to perceive and comprehend spatial relationships and depth in learning content

For learning that involves understanding a place or some sort of 3D structure, with 2D content, it takes more mental effort to interpret and understand the spatial relationships, to connect with the place. Good filmmakers and photographers know how to compose 2D imagery and video to help us with this, but there is still a need to take the 2D and mentally abstract from it, imagining mentally the 3D reality. With 3D, there is not so much imagination or abstraction; the mental processing of it in terms of the experience in the brain would theoretically be similar to how you would process the perceived image of the real thing if you were there.

Visit a location, or a good museum exhibit, and you can see the power of experiencing a location in all its spatial dimensions. It is one thing to read about something and look at a picture, another to experience it in an immersive fashion.

Potential areas of training application

Stereo 3D could be beneficial in a range of different subject matter areas, from hard sciences to life sciences to social science to fine arts. Some examples of where 3D could be useful:

  • Understanding 3D structures and relation to form. For example in hard sciences. For example to understand the spatial arrangement of stars in a galactic supercluster, to visualize a simulation of the formation of the solar system, to visualize the relation between structure and function for higher level protein structure, or of the enzymes that control DNA transcription, to visualize simulations of how weather interacts with geography like mountains.
  • In experiencing exotic or impossible to visit locales. For example, outer space, in Space Station 3D or Alfonso Cuaron’s upcoming Gravity. Or to virtually visit paleolithic cave paintings normally closed to the public in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Another would be out of the way natural parks or reserves.
  • In experiencing areas of natural splendor like the Grand Canyon. Or more remote areas of natural beauty. Ecologists and conservationists sometimes struggle to communicate the value and beauty of certain isolated natural locations and the value of their preservation. 3D can give a more meaningful sense of what the place is like and why it is special.
  • Along the same lines, to experience wildlife on video in a more realistic, lifelike manner.
  • In experiencing human spaces or manmade sites like famous areas in foreign cities
  • For history to better understand the spatial layout of an area to give a better grasp of how that shaped the experience of some historical event. Pass of Thermopylae, for example, or Normandy Beach, or Dieppe.
  • For anthropology in the study of different cultures and their ways of life and the spaces in which they live. A good part of social science and is in understanding the physical spaces in which the people live. Culture is, in a sense, formed at the intersection of a physical space with technology and climate. 3D transmits more powerfully that spatial dimension, allowing us to better bridge that  separation between ourselves and some exotic culture by virtually entering their living space.
  • Religious studies – to virtually experience the geography of the Sinai desert, or the Mount of Olives, to walk through a 3D archaeologists imagining of the Temple at Jerusalem, to virtually experience Mount A’rafat or the Kaaba in Hajj, or to virtually visit one of the more famous and spectacular Hindu or Buddhist temples
  • Fine arts: To experience art exhibitions, sculpture particularly in distant locations virtually for art education, to visit the studio of a prominent photographer or painter, or to be in the pit of an orchestral concert.
  • Experience of a first hand point of view for relatively recent history and contemporary human events as live footage gets captured in 3D
  • In architecture or structural engineering for collaboration in the design of structures by looking at 3D models in 3D

Important Training Considerations

In order to promote effective learning or training using 3D content, there are several issues to which attention will need to be given:

  • Ensuring effective cost-benefit. If investments of money and time are going to be put into buying equipment and learning how to use it, there needs to be a return on investment in the form of more efficient and / or more effective teaching / training. It has to be more than a fad or gimmick done “because the technology is there.” There has to be a compelling learning case for any particular usage.
  • Avoiding it being mere “edutainment” where it’s cool to watch but learners don’t gain anything toward the actual objectives. We need to recognize when 3D legitimately gives worthwhile added value that justifies it and when it’s just decoration. There is a difference between content simply being entertaining and content being educational. (Though of course, the ideal is for it to be both!)
  • Finding quality content. This is a major concern right now. There is currently a kind of catch 22 for example with 3DTV where people don’t watch a lot of it because there are hardly any channels with content and new channels are slow to appear because not many are actively watching.
  • A significant portion of the population (some estimates go up to 25%) experience negative effects / discomfort from watching 3D content, ranging from headaches to nausea. This comes from a mismatch between how the eyes must be oriented to experience the 3D effect in focus (both eyes looking straight ahead toward the screen, parallel to each other) and how the eyes naturally tend to orient themselves based on where the brain is telling them the image is (eyes rotate inward so that they converge on the object in between). This strain, however is usually experienced from watching a whole feature length 2 hour film in one stretch. This effect would likely be less noticeable in viewing sets of 3D clips with breaks in between, as would be the case with using 3D educational materials.
  • The need to establish a sound, rigorous research grounding of principles to guide best practice. There has been a relative shortage of hard research on establishing what works educationall in 3D. There are some research studies showing positive and significant differences in amount learned between groups when content was viewed in 3D as opposed to 2D. However, more rigorous research, as well as creative informal experimentation by training professionals and enthusiasts needs to be done. People need to generate content and play with different variables and see what types of content benefit in a meaningful way from a 3D treatment and which don’t, what factors augment or hinder the educational impact of 3D, how much of measured impact is attributable to simple novelty temporarily enhancing attention, and how much to real improvements in the ability to get ideas across. The increasing availability of affordable, quality 3D capable camcorders and screens on which to show the content should enable this by opening production of content up to education departments, training departments, and “amateur,” YouTube type enthusiasts.

In Conclusion

A number of factors are converging to produce an environment where stereoscopic 3D is increasingly a viable approach for some training content. Well constructed 3D content can potentially bring learning benefits as part of a properly-designed training and learning solution for a range of different subject areas. Proper attention has to be paid however to ensure that 3D content is used in a thoughtful, principle-based way so that it brings legitimate ROI rather than simply being a gimmick.

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Logical future directions of stereo 3D technology:

  • Combining 3D video capture with body movement based Natural User Interfaces (NUIs), interacting with a 3D imagery via physical gestures
  • Capturing and streaming 3D video to enable Live 3D virtual tele-presence. Some companies are already offering such setups for corporate clients.
  • Incorporation of 3D into mobile or wearable devices. Imagine a miniaturized dual lens 3D capture set-up in future versions of cellphones, tablet, or Google Glass-type augmented reality wearables with dual cameras and a 3D display in the glasses a few years down the road. Meta glasses are one example of projects working in this direction.