The Future of Cinematic Pleasure: 3D Movies and Beyond

3D films have been around longer than most people think. They’ve existed for about a century – since 1915! We’ve seen the growing popularity of this film technology in the past decade and have come to realize that the recent resurgence isn’t just a passing fad.

The 3D movie technology has even been combined with physical effects to create "4D" films in specialized theaters. If 3D films are here to stay and are to be further developed into 4D and beyond in the future, let’s take a glimpse at the fundamental ideas behind the technology and how they gel together nicely.

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Illusion Of Depth

Put simply, a stereoscopic 3D film works by emphasizing the illusion of depth perception, which is achieved by artificially creating two perspectives for the film. This can be done by using two cameras to capture the filming at different angles at the same time, or with the cheaper (but more tedious) alternative of creating layered images with computer technology.

Each of the two perspectives is meant to be seen by either your left or right eye – each of your eyes will see different perspectives simultaneously. This overlapping explains why the screen looks blurry if you’re not wearing 3D glasses).

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3D glasses are to be worn, so that the images are correctly filtered to your left or right eye. The 3D illusion is created when our brain receives different images from each of our eyes and automatically merges them into a single image. This is how the perception of depth comes into play in reality whenever we visually process our physical 3D environments.

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Synchronicity & Physiological Arousal

It goes without saying that the illusion of depth won’t work unless the two perspectives play at the same time. This is where synchronicity comes into the picture not just for 3D, but also 4D films. For the latter, physical effects occur at the exact points of the movie where such effects are expected.

For instance, the viewing of a cartoon character sneeze at the audience gets the 4D effect when water sprays or air spurts are utilized with precision timing. What we see stimulates our sight, what we feel trigger our physiological reflexes intensely.

The coordination of scenes that rouse our "fight or flight" response, for instance a car chase scene, combined with vibrating or moving seats, makes the brain register the effect and even cause us to feel as if we are in the scene we are watching. We essentially lose ourselves in the movie.

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With an audience that’s so physiologically and mentally engaged with a movie, it becomes even easier to detect any out-of-sync physical sensations that accompany the 3D or 4D film. Synchronicity is especially crucial, as the flow of the movie is very delicate and can easily be disrupted when the special effects don’t match.


If you’ve tried those red and cyan anaglyph 3D glasses before, you’d probably agree that the polarized or shutter glasses offer much better visual quality. However, these three types of 3D glasses aren’t interchangeable as each of them is designed for a specific 3D system.

Simplistically speaking, anaglyph films use color filtering, while the polarized 3D system limits the amount of light that enters each eye, whereas the active shutter system utilizes LCD screen technology to darken each of the two lenses of the 3D glasses in quick successions.

All in all, the common goal across these systems is to make 3D imagery as natural and close to reality as possible.

Apart from enjoying high-quality 3D imagery, users also look forward to no uncomfortable physical symptoms like headaches, dizziness and nausea caused by prolonged usage of 3D glasses.

The next logical step for the industry then may be to remove the need for 3D glasses altogether. Although 3D glasses aren’t the main cause of the undesirable physical sensations (they’re also partly due to the brain getting confused over the artificially created perspectives and angles onscreen), not having to wear those tinted glasses is still a big step forward in the pursuit of the ultimate immersive experience.


With so much demand and emphasis on realism, it’s understandable why 3D and 4D films are gaining a foothold with the masses. The jump from 2D films to 3D and beyond satisfies the desires of the masses because it means we’re moving ahead in the realism department.

It perhaps explains why the interest in 3D films was kindled again and again since the “golden era” in the 50s, when the first color 3D film from a major American studio, The House of Wax was released. The same kind of enthusiasm in 4D films is also present since the 2000s, with the likes of major Hollywood films such as Avatar, Titanic, Iron Man 3 screened in 4D.

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Non-intrusiveness aside, another reason why the idea of not having to wear special 3D movie glasses is so welcomed is because we want to see images in 3D with our naked eyes (or with our glasses or contacts) where we just don’t feel “artificial”.

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Nintendo has already showed us it’s possible with its 3DS gaming system. It uses a special filter (parallax barrier) so that each of our eyes sees different images (polarization) to create a 3D illusion. Such a method wouldn’t work for traditional movie theaters because the projector which produces the light has to be located behind the screen rather than the audience (as is always the case).

Fortunately, a team from Seoul National University has already come up with a counter solution by including a layer on the screen that polarizes the light before sending different images back to the audience.


This may seem contradictory to my previous point but what I’m actually referring to is the universes of the movies being mind-blowing as opposed to the general graphical or “kinaesthetical” realism of 3D and 4D films. If you were to take a look at the list of 3D feature films since 2005, you will see that the majority of them are either digital animation or graphics-intensive movies.

There is definitely a greater demand for movies like The Matrix or Avatar to be featured in 3D or 4D, as compared to drama films like Juno or The Social Network. This is because we would naturally be more intrigued by otherworldly universes which we don’t encounter in our daily lives, and thus crave to experience them in their fullest glory (i.e. in 3D or 4D).

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“Otherworldly” here applies to the many computer-animated, Sci-Fi and any other movies where their settings are not what you see every day (e.g. Titanic and Avatar).

Other than having grandiose and extraordinary settings or universes in the movies, another way to rouse the “out-of-this-world” curiosity is as what I had earlier mentioned about physiological arousal: eliciting moviegoers’ “fight or flight” responses. This is the same adrenaline rush we crave whenever we watch horror films to give ourselves a good scare.

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Through the graphical and “kinaesthetical” realism of 3D or 4D action films, our survival instincts are more acutely triggered whenever cars jump out of the screen and charge towards us, wrestling our attention to the movie and making us feel like a part of the action.

Since such “out-of-this-world” experiences rarely happen in our lives (thankfully), we, as curious beings, are naturally drawn to watch them in the movies. As of now, 3D and 4D movies are the best antidote to our cravings because they are far superior in engaging the audience than 2D films – provided that the flow of the movie and special effects are in sync.

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4D Movies: The Comeback of Smell-O-Vision and Many More?

While 3D films have had their fair share of fame and history, 4D films are comparatively new and have a longer way to go. Nevertheless, sensory-based 4D films are slowly making a comeback since the infamous Smell-O-Vision failed to take flight in the 1960s. The odor-releasing system was one of the earliest attempts at generating sensory experience in films with the intention of letting moviegoers experience movies in a "scent-sational" new way with up to 30 different odors.

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Sure, the idea didn’t sit well with the masses back then and had TIME magazine regarding it as one of the 50 worst inventions, but that spirit of innovation lived on and probably influenced the development of sensory theaters today to some extent.

There’s absolutely more room for experimentation for 4D films, what with the current range of physical effects from water sprays to ticklers. Who’s to say that Smell-O-Vision won’t return to theaters someday? 3D films, which enhances our experience through only one (visual) of our five senses, has already been so well-received today.

Optimistically speaking, 4D films should have much more potential within and opportunities to exploit since they have the other four senses to pick and augment on. The only hurdle to overcome is the inevitably long process of experimentation during the early stages of innovation adoption.