human and animalform. Our ancestors’ brains understood that re-presentations of the 3D world should be in 3D. Even cave paintings took full advantage of the rock shapes and contours. Recent research shows that cave art may not have been ‘art’ at all but a more utilitarian tool – the cave as classroom, where we learned to be a predator and avoid being prey. It would seem that the images had real narrative purpose, showing the actual appearance and hunting habits of animals.
Media is 2D
Around 3400 years ago, we invented writing upon 2D surfaces; clay, papyrus, bark and paper. This form of semantic communication has remained a powerful, flexible and dominant force. Painted art on 2D walls and 2D canvases also came to dominate domestic decoration and art.
Writing, print, black and white photography, colour photography, black and white movies, colour movies, back and white television, colour television, green computer screens, colour computer screens, HD TVs, tablets, mobiles – what do they all have in common? They are all 2D.
TVs have been getting bigger and with higher and higher fidelity. Indeed we are capable of creating fidelity beyond that which the human eyes can perceive. This attempts to recreate 3D immersion in 2D by increasing the field of view. It also increases suspension of disbelief by bringing the immersion of cinema into the home. It is 2D that strives to be 3D.
The battle of mobile screens has led to a battle between mobile and tablet screens. Phone screens got smaller, then bigger, eventually settling on screens large enough to satisfy viewing needs but small enough to hold in the hand and put in one’s pocket. Phablets essentially outgunning the tablet market. All of this has taken place within the 2D paradigm of flat screens. Even the 3D worlds in gaming, where players moved around within 3D environments were still 2D.
McLuhan and Baudrillard reflected on these changes and the shift from the real to simulated and hyperreal. As the consumerist world of communications, art, entertainment and work become more virtual, we spent more and more time in this new realm. Yet it has remained stubbornly 2D. This is because the technology we invented and made available was limited. Black and white photography, movies and TV existed, not because we loved the ability of that medium to represent essence – we had it because silver nitrate and limited broadcast technology was all we had.
Yet human perception is 3D
But here’s the thing, contrast our media with the reality of human perception. We see in 3D, we hear in 3D. We have stereoscopic vision and hearing which creates enough data for the brain to recreate 3D worlds. Our two eyes recombine two separate data feeds to recreate in out brains the 3D world we perceive. Our two ears are subtly folded to create sound shadows and catch the exact location of sounds in 3D space. We feel, smell and touch in 3D, even our balance and sense of direction are in 3D. Consciousness itself is in 3D. Yet our media are still largely 2D.
Media now 3D
This brings us to the here and now, and a break point in the evolution of media, where AR and VR have emerged as viable consumer technologies. Our media now match perception and deliver data that can be seen as we see the real word – in 3D. We can now experience 3D media that truly match our human needs and 3D consciousness. That word ‘experience’ is important, as it is the distribution, decentralisation and democratisation of ‘experience’ that is now possible. So let’s explore the several levels and layers of re-presentation in 3D media.
AR (Augmented Reality) as 3D
Augmented reality retains our 3D vision as its backdrop. It places 3D images into that already perceived 3D world. This can get quite complex, as it blends different realities. Pokemon Go, for example, presents layers of reality. Let’s start with consciousness (in itself a complete re-presentation of reality), it recreates the real world as you walk around in that 3D world looking for your virtual Pokemon. There’s maps (an idealised mapped representation of reality) where you as a represented avatar walk around and encounter Pokemon and Pokemon stops and gyms. The camera view (a photographic representation of reality), Pokemon and all the other imagery (superimposed upon the other realities), are all eventually framed back within your conscious view of these realities. And don’t forget the internet (itself a created reality) and GPS (a created dynamic co-ordination path within both the virtual and real). One could add a social reality. It all comes back to your conscious mind simply bringing them together into one conscious, blended reality. This is heady stuff.
The augmentation that Microsoft’s Hololens brings is to create 3D holograms within your perceived 3D world. These appear as if being there and are even persistent – if you come back, they’re still there. With Magic Leap, based in Florida, the direct projection of 3D images onto your retinas brings with it remarkable levels of seamless 3D augmented realism. It’s potential is reflected in the largest round of C-funding ever, at $793.5 million. It has raised $1.4 billion and is valued at $4.5 billion – and here’s the rub – it doesn’t have a single developer company or customer. This is a pure tech play. What Magic Leap does is play to the 3D capabilities of the brain and present data that allows the brain to seamlessly integrate projected images from the goggles to your retina. This is blended reality is s like “dreaming with your eyes open”.
VR (Virtual Reality) is 3D
VR offers total 3D immersion, where you really feel as though you are in another place – that feeling is called ‘presence’. It gives you full 3D experiences of games, entertainment, locations, imaginary worlds, education, training – anything – in your mind. It is this access to 3D ‘experiences’ that makes it so compelling. When you first try VR, you get an ‘aha’ feeling. Wow – I’m in a created world that feels real. That’s because ALL media you’ve ever tried before has been in 2D. We’re so used to being presented with 2D print and screens, that it comes as a real shock to see the represented worlds as they really should be – in 3D. The epiphany is that we can now experience experiences as they are meant to be experienced.
Within a $99 Samsung Gear or even cheaper Google Cardboard device, we can use our mobile phones to deliver full, stereoscopic, 3D virtual experiences that make you feel as though you are in a different reality . These can be captured as 360 degree photographs, 360 degree video or completely built as graphic worlds. We can move around within these 3D worlds, manipulate build and take apart objects within these worlds, even interact with other virtual (created avatars or avatars that are real people. We can even hybrid the experience by, for example, sitting in a real roller coaster feeling the real G-forces, while seeing a thrill ride that goes through space. The only limit to what can be built and experienced is our imaginations.
Like AR, the thing about VR and 3D experience is that it speaks to our brains in a way that resonates physically, emotionally, even sub-consciously. It literally becomes an extension of consciousness, where all distance is eliminated. In my own field, education and training, the promise of full attention (a necessary condition for all learning), emotional input (important in learning), learning by doing (very important in learning), relevant context (proven efficacy in learning), transfer (proven in flight sims) and therefore faster learning with higher retention and recall, is now a reality or virtually a reality.
New media rarely completely knocks out old media and we have had 40,000 years of evolved 2D media from cave art to screens. But are we at the start of a new era, where media actually deliver what our brains expect – 3D realities, artificial realities, mixed realities, augmented realities, virtual realities? This is as it should be. We are being taken back inside the cave and out of the dark emerge 3D images that are exciting, terrifying and new.
Sound is 3D
Interestingly, radio, talkies and the telephone are of another order, as they are not flat and were 3D from the start, with a different technological trajectory. Music as distributed on wax, vinyl, tape, CD and now digital was always disseminated in 3D, for the obvious reason that the physics of sound is 3D – it can only be 3D.
Sculpture and iconoclasm
Another exception to the dominance of 2D media was sculpture, embraced by most ancient civilisations. In China, Egypt, Greece and Rome, 3D sculpture was revered. Only Islam rejected sculpture and representation of animal and human form as idolatrous. Yet 3D representations have always eventually become objects of idolatrous or sexual suspicion. Throughout history iconoclasts have repeatedly attacked 3D representation. Worship of 3D objects was seen as idolatry in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All of these religions would periodically purge themselves of 3D representation. Perhaps the most sustained attack on 3D representation is in Islam. Although not in the Quran it has roots in the removal idols from the Ka'ba in Mecca and Islamic iconoclasm has endured to this day, extending to the destruction of ancient sites by the Saudis and ISIS. In Christianity, the Byzantines and then the Protestant Reformation saw the widespread destruction of statuary. Iconoclastic riots were common throughout the 16th century in Europe. They invoked the Commandment that forbade graven (sculpted) images. Political movements, both Communism and capitalists have also destroyed each others’ statuary. The symbolic toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue was a memorable moment in the Gulf War.