In early 2010 the Sci-Fi action blockbuster Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time, partially due to the inflated price of 3D movie tickets. This feat seemed to signal that 3D was the next big thing in entertainment, and many speculated that 2010 would be the “year of 3D.” But in 2011, many viewers are choosing 2D over 3D – a choice that could sway the trends in favour of flat.

Does the premium price tag on 3D entertainment accompany a premium experience? That’s something many moviegoers have been asking themselves lately.

“Instead of meeting demand for 3D entertainment, movie studios and TV manufacturers are trying to create it,” said entertainment journalist Daemon Hatfield in a recent interview. “With few exceptions, this stuff doesn’t come from a desire to enrich entertainment experiences – it comes from a desire to make more money, since they can charge more for 3D movies and televisions.”

But what’s most interesting, from a science perspective, is that some people, Hatfield included, are unable to enjoy the full 3D experience due to vision problems.

The ability to enjoy 3D movies is linked to a process in the eye called accommodation, the ability of the eye to change its focus between close and distant objects. Inside the eye there is a small elastic lens that changes shape to put objects at different distances in focus. This little lens can get a serious workout when watching a 3D movie, if the filmmakers don't take this process into consideration.

Did You Know?
Unlike in humans, accommodation in fish eyes does not involve a lens changing shape; fish eyes move a solid lens backwards and forwards to achieve the same effect.

Consider this trailer for Lord of the Rings. Imagine how difficult it would be to watch in 3D. The focus of the scene shifts abruptly several times between a character that is a few meters away and something dozens of meters away before settling on a close focus of a ring—all in only five seconds. This trailer is a workout for your eyes even in 2D. In 3D your eyes wouldn't be able to keep up with the shifting focus.

Did You Know?
You can purchase 2D glasses that make 3D movies appear 2D. They work by using the same polarizing lens in each eyepiece so both eyes get the same image.

At its best, 3D adds incredible immersion; at its worst, it distracts from the experience. While some will continue to frequent films only made in 2D (especially those whose eyes can’t adjust to 3D movies), others including famed filmmaker James Cameron remain convinced that 3D is the future of film and television. In fact, amidst working on the sequel to Avatar he’s also working to produce high quality content for 3D televisions that are being produced by many of the major technology brands.

What do you like better, 2D or 3D? Tell us in the comments below!

Learn More!

Roger Ebert’s Journal – Why 3D doesn’t work and never will

Is 3D Bad for you?

James Cameron sees a 3-D future for film, TV and games – CNN

Thanks to Daemon Hatfield, Senior Editor of the IGN Games Editorial Team at He releases music under the name Monster-0.

Article first published July 21, 2011

Russ Dickson

I am a PhD student in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario. My work is in the field of bioinformatics, the science of using computers and information science to solve problems in molecular biology. When I am not writing biological software, I play hockey and make games for the PC, iPhone and Nintendo DS.

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