The return of real vision

In its early phase, the new medium of personal stereo video will be compelling if only because certain  older parts of the visual brain will be newly awakened and engaged to make it work.  The fusion of the highly isolated left and right views, the deep, somewhat magical third view that forms in the mind, the ongoing stream of depth, movement and stereo sound afforded by video, all combine to make this new and desirable territory for the human sensorium.  On this page we explore some peculiarities of this novel situation, and try to predict some consequences.

To stereo-ize video photography is not simply to add an enhancement to television, as sound or color were to movies in the 1920s and 30s; it is to create a fundamentally new medium.  The obvious novelty is that we can now record, play back and transmit the sensation of space and the “is-ness” of things in that space.  Stereo still photography does this as well, but the additional effect of stereo video is that the streaming of movement and sound bring the time dimension into the picture, or, we could say, the life dimension.  In this sense, stereo video is to flat video as the motion picture was to the still photograph--a way of capturing, seeing into, an entirely different domain of reality. 

The new domain, paradoxically, happens to be an old and familiar one: life itself.  The opening up of the screen into a moving, deep, stereoscopic world causes what we could call a transfer of presence to occur, in contrast to, say, the flat computer screen, where even when one is accessing a live webcam somewhere, there is no chance of psychologically entering or losing oneself in the scene.  But within the darkened stereoscope, the eyes having no other moving color input except the two screens, fused into one in the brain, there is no avoiding entering the scene psychologically. 

An example of this kind of spatial shift is in the movie above, the squirrel under the yucca tree.  The pointy leaves of the tree are all hanging down at different depths in the picture space, something which cannot be seen until the two views are fused.  The transfer happens when the mind acknowledges the existence of that space, that void, and it is forced to see it as enterable.  Or, we see the squirrel’s tail as an impenetrable blur in 2-D, but we can see into it in 3-D, making it real to us as fur-with-air-in-it.  In effect, the stereo has pulled us into the yucca tree with the squirrel, and just about into her tail as it virtually brushes against our face.  We may even wince inwardly for the squirrel as her eye scrapes the edge of one of the leaves.  Why would there be an emotional and a seemingly tactile connection to what we are seeing?

The memory of trees

To attempt to answer this, we can look at recent findings about the architecture of our binocular visual system.  It appears that our optical pathways were developed by ancestors of the primates who spent their lives high above the ground, leaping from branch to branch or tree to tree.  One member in this line, the colugo, the so-called “flying lemur,” has huge darkness-adapted front-facing eyes, and its own hang-glider wing membrane that stretches from neck to hand to foot to tail, a magnificent sail that makes the colugo look like a kite as it surfs between the trees in the forests of Southeast Asia. 

Obviously, the sort of visual processing needed for travel among trees, gliding or swinging arm-over-arm at speeds up to 30 mph like the later primates, is accurate, high-speed depth perception.  Colugos can execute sharp turns in flight and plunge through foliage, wingsuit folded, and then open up and glide on to a perch. 

Logic tells us that this extraordinary confidence in air and trees depends on, in addition to grasping hands and a high-speed binocular optic channel, a central, direct connection to the body’s motion-control systems, and just as important, to its emotional equilibrium.  It will do no good to be able to glide between trees and safely land if one is afraid to take the initial plunge. 

We could propose further that there is even a positive appetite for daring movement and thrilling landing-satisfaction built in to the binocular-fusion/motion-control neural crossroads that we are outlining here.  This would account for, in humans, the well-known endorphin rush that follows the well-executed maneuver, the downhill ski run, the dangerous climb or tricky landing.  We seek these thrills out; they are wired into our vision and motion systems, inherited from life in the trees.  These primal emotional circuits are connected to depth perception in order to 1) get the tree-dweller around happily in the branches like any other animal moving around its patch of the earth, and 2) avoid crashing to the ground.  The high-speed binocular fusion circuits may therefore comprise the very joy-of-life/avoidance-of-death channel of our visual system.  This channel is now about to be switched on for the first time by a moving pictorial medium, which the brain seems to take in like it takes in real life. 

Applications and implications

So, in presenting to the two eyes a left-right fusion stream in the stereoscope, we ought to recognize that we are playing to this deepest nexus of sight, motion and emotion in ourselves, and see if we can fit in with or even expand its unconscious aesthetic and mastery of detail, as discussed on the stereoscope page, and also see if we can support -- rather than alienate by fearful prodding -- its preferences.  This may mean that some stereo material designed for the big screen won’t work well on the small, intimate stereoscope screen, which can be viewed in this context as a direct extension of our natural vision system.  (It is hard to imagine the theater screen with its massive picture as an extension of anyone’s vision system in this sense, unless it be Hollywood’s as a whole.)  Conversely, any lingering over small picture detail encouraged by the stereoscope might not work on the big-screen canvas and its perceived demand for spectacle.    

Because of the constraints -- and opportunities -- of presence transfer, and the deep levels of the mind’s involvement, we think that the most likely use of the stereoscope over time will follow the natural inclinations of an ordinary person suddenly offered a new world of enjoyment, learning and new experience: travel to dramatic places, meeting and visiting with others, watching performances, investigating curiosities and mysteries, associating with animals and nature, pursuing thrills, and so on.  We suspect that visiting standard 3-D movie scenes of mayhem will be rather far down the list of places to transfer oneself, or that having things thrown at one when one can’t catch or dodge anything will seem pointless and irritating.  Instead, on the positive side, a new “industry” based on telepresence will overlay and greatly expand, perhaps beyond all present imagining, our text and flat-picture-based computer networks. 

Not your father’s global village

Poised as we are at the dawn of this new communications medium, we arrive at a point where we need a new McLuhan to sort things out.  His basic insight that “the medium is the message”--our communications technologies shape us and our societies--is now conventional wisdom 45 years later.  But it seems our environment has now evolved beyond the state described by his other great idea-meme, the global village, in which he tended to see the citizens of the world as hapless media-creatures agitated in a growing sea of instantaneous planet-wide prodding from radio and television.  In the 1960s when he was writing, this indeed seemed to be the situation, as, for example, the nightly news film from Vietnam provoked outrage against the war, and televised protests in turn provoked a “conservative” reaction.

Now, in the age of the Internet, the fact that so many people have come to believe we live on a planet metaphorically shrunk to village size is a sign that we actually do not, as McLuhan’s son Eric pointed out as early as 1999.**  And if we just think about the new web of computer-based connectivity--the social networking, the image, sound and knowledge exchanging and so on--we cannot avoid the impression that something is growing around the planet at a tremendous rate.  Rather than being passive villagers swamped by encroaching media we seem to be increasingly controlling, organizing and “broadcasting” our own media and thought in a way that no one could have foreseen in McLuhan’s global village era.


The unfolding story about the Internet is the self-generated imperative that fuels, propels its growth: the accretion of an idea sphere, based on a growing knowledge sphere, enabled by an evolving hypertext sphere, created by the voluntary contributions of the many and the unnamed.  Where did, or does, this come from?  Apparently, in the case of Wikipedia or open-source software, for example, the imperative

If this were happening during Marshall McLuhan’s watch, he might have been happy to observe that a network of telepresenters may come to serve as the tea house in the bazaar, the arcade for flaneurs, the academy of philosophers, that our fractious Global Village has been missing.

We shall see.



**Here is what Eric McLuhan has said this about his father’s most famous phrase:  ‘Marshall McLuhan came up with the phrase "the global village" as a way to describe the effect of radio in the 1920s in bringing us in faster and more intimate contact with each other that ever before in human experience. Ironically, today one often hears people exclaim that the global village is now "on the point of finally being achieved," or that it is "clearly getting closer to reality," and so forth. He would have said that such remarks are a reliable indicator that that condition has been displaced by some other and more potent one. The reason: by the time that the average person can see something it has ceased to be environmental and become the content of another environment. Something newer has made it visible even as it has itself taken over general control.’  (The full article about his father’s source for the phrase is here.)  The new environment is clearly the noösphere created by web-connected individual computers.

Rediscovering space