We live in three dimensions, four if you include time (11 if you're a string theorist). But from the time of the first cave paintings 25,000 years ago until the present, our media depiction of the world has been two-dimensional.
There was an abortive attempt to bring 3D to the movie theatres in the 1950s, but i never really caught on. But 3D has recently made a revival, thanks to better technology and the popularity of James Cameron's Avatar.
Now 3D is coming into the home, on your computer, your television set, and your digital camera.
The browser first. Google has introduced Google Body Browser, which provides an interactive look at and through the human body. You can zoom in and out and rotate your view, and dive through layers from the skin to the skeleton to the nervous system to the organs. You can see a demo here.
It's not really 3D — the body doesn't seem to pop out of the screen in front of you. What the Google webpage does is map a three-dimensional image onto the two-dimensional surface of your computer screen using rendering and perspective drawing techniques. But the way it combines various techniques to allow you to explore the body is what's impressive.
At the moment, it only works in web browsers that supports the new WebGL standard. The beta version of Google Chrome works straight off, while beta versions of Firefox and Safari will work with a few tweaks to your system — see http://khronos.org/webgl/wiki/Getting_a_WebGL_Implementation for details.
Right now you can only explore one "object" — a young adult female body. But the potential to create other objects is there — molecules, animals, insects, plants, stars as well as complex human-made objects like skyscrapers, nuclear power plants, jet airplanes. The educational possibilities are endless. First-year medical students, aeronautic engineers, astronomers and others would benefit immensely. And the frogs of the world could start breathing a little easier — high school biology dissections would quickly become obsolete when students could simply enter a web address in their browser and start exploring a virtual frog.
Next the television set. I saw a demonstration of LG's new Infinia 50" plasma screen 3D television set a few weeks ago. With few stations and networks broadcasting in 3D yet (though the number is increasing), you will need to hook up a 3D disc player and/or a 3D game console for content, of course, and (at least for now) you need to wear special 3D glasses. All told, you'll be spending a few thousand dollars, but if you can afford it and you need (or want) a new home entertainment system, it's worth looking into. Movies, video games, and television shows are all incredibly realistic. I'm normally not a fan of first person shooter video games, but the demonstration of the new 3D Call of Duty game had me cringing and ducking bullets that seemed to come out of the screen.
The LG system comes bundled with two pairs of 3D glasses and a Fuji FinePix REAL 3D W1 digital camera that can shoot still and video images in 3D (The camera is also available retail for about $500).
But it was the Fuji camera that most impressed me. The movies and the video game were all created by professionals so I expected them to look compelling. But the output from the camera — footage of a bicycle race that looked extremely vivid, and a photo of a child in a field of flowers who seemed to be standing in front of the screen were both taken by an amateur — showing that anyone can create an extraordinary 3D experience.
It's early days yet, and more manufacturers will soon be coming out with 3D cameras, televisions, consoles and (most important) content, and probably at lower prices. But what Fuji and LG had to show that night was, literally, an eye opener.
The future is so near, it's in our face.