Home : 3D : Introduction

What is 3D?

XYZ Graph X-Y-Z Graph
Human eyesight Human eyesight

3D means three-dimensional, i.e. something that has width, height and depth (length). Our physical environment is three-dimensional and we move around in 3D every day.

Humans are able to perceive the spatial relationship between objects just by looking at them because we have 3D perception, also known as depth perception. As we look around, the retina in each eye forms a two-dimensional image of our surroundings and our brain processes these two images into a 3D visual experience.

However it's important to note that having vision in both eyes (stereoscopic or binocular vision) is not the only way to see in 3D. People who can only see with one eye (monocular vision) can still perceive the world in 3D, and may even be unaware that they are stereo blind. They are simply missing one of the tools to see in 3D, so they rely on others without thinking about it.

Here are some of the tools humans use for depth perception:

In order to represent the 3D world on a flat (2D) surface such as a display screen, it's desirable to simulate as many of these perception tools as possible. Although there is currently no way to simulate all of them at the same time, video does use a combination. For example, aerial perspective and size familiarity are automatically captured by the video camera. In CGI scenes, aerial perspective must be added so that distant objects appear less clearly (this is called distance fog).

Of course the addition of stereoscopic images (a separate image for each eye) is a significant improvement—so much so that most people think of stereoscopic films as being 3D, and all others as being 2D.

2D Film & Video

A traditional 2-D video image has width and height but technically it has no depth, i.e. everything in the image is presented at the same distance from the viewer. Still, the viewer does perceive the image as three-dimensional by subconsciously using the techniques listed above—much the same as how stereo-blind people perceive the real world.

Anaglyphic movie Anaglyphic movies require red/cyan or red/blue glasses.
Photo by Pete Souza

3D Film & Video

3D video adds stereoscopic vision, meaning that two separate images are shown simultaneously—one to each eye. This presents enormous technical problems which is why there is still no perfect system almost 100 years since the first 3D movie was made.

Common display methods include:

For more information see 3D film & video systems.