What to think of Apple’s coming 3-D

In an age where tech geeks get excited about every minor Facebook UX update, it’s easy to lose the forest of trends for the trees. So let’s take a look at Apple’s recent patent for a glasses-free 3-D system.

First, the tech. Current 3-D systems require some form of glasses that allow images to be slightly shifted between your left and right eyes; two eyes, after all, are required to see in stereoscopic vision. Creating the illusion of depth in an image has been around since the 1860s, when photographers would shoot two frames from slightly different angles and use gadgets such as stereoscopic viewers to show one unique image per eye. Today’s most-modern 3-D televisions use a rapid blinking approach, in which the left- and then right-eye image are flashed across the entire TV screen hundreds of times per second, synchronized to glasses which use LED shutters to simultaneously shut the images off from alternate eyes. The illusion is pure holography, with the images floating in front of you, a stunning achievement.

Trouble is, those nasty glasses. They scratch. They need batteries. Frankly, you look like a fool. Apple has found a complex way to remove the need for eyeware by using Microsoft Kinect-type motion sensors to track where your eyes are in relation to the screen, and then projecting images accordingly to each eye. In simple terms, the screen will watch you, and then focus the images on your eyes, even if you adjust yourself on the couch. The obvious technicality is how to track two sets of eyes, so we predict 3-D will appear first on Apple laptops — what a differentiator, and Apple needs a new one because it can’t really make its portable computers any thinner.

When UX changes, so does users’ behavior

OK, so you get it: Better 3-D is coming, and it will be freaky cool. Imagine the scene on airplanes as businesspeople play their silly iPad games by flapping their hands in the air. But beyond Angry Birds and cartoons, what could really change? Technology has a habit of shifting consumers’ behavior: The telephone supported long-term relationships, the automobile created 45-mile commutes, the airplane allowed businesses near-global reach out of small offices … what appears initially as a new way to see the world eventually changes the world in which we live.

So imagine a laptop that projects a full-color hologram before you, with sensors that also track your hand movements, so if you reach out and “touch” the image it changes shape or location. Now imagine cheap 3-D screens everywhere: On table tops, on mall walls, on your car dashboard, on your bathroom mirror. People could design or build in three-dimensions; modeling could lead to the simulation of touching another’s face; the porn industry (admit it, the leader in most visual gimmickry) will have a field day. You could wake up in the morning and have a virtual dentist help inspect your teeth as your brush. The real implication could be a verisimilitude heretofore unseen among humans. The separation of virtual reality from realty will become so complete, the labels may fall away.

Falling costs could eventually embed 3-D screens on fabric, say, your clothes or pillow case. Did we mention porn? Yikes.

The implications for marketers could be negative. L.L. Bean would surely like to show you its winter coats in three dimensions. But imagine the difficulty The New York Times will have serving ads against content that floats in 3-D, giving real impetus for you to play with it in the air. People may turn to content that acts like the tools of yore, vs. passive entertainment to wash over them with accompanying marketing messages. In that world, ads might seem like flies, nuisances buzzing in the air to be swatted away.

Real 3-D is coming. It will add unforeseen dimensions to our behavior, and like most new elements, the end usage will be surprising.

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