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3-D glasses with red/blue lenses. See more virtual reality pictures.

Introduction to How 3-D Glasses Work

Although the 1950s are most often considered the 3-D movie decade, the first feature length 3-D film, "The Power of Love," was made in 1922. Since that time the use of 3-D technology in theaters and on television has drifted in and out of mainstream popularity. But, whether you've used them for the big screen or at home in front of your television, you have to admit 3-D glasses are incredibly cool.

They make the movie or television show you're watching look like a 3-D scene that's happening right in front of you. With objects flying off the screen and careening in your direction, and creepy characters reaching out to grab you, wearing 3-D glasses makes you feel like you're a part of the action - not just someone sitting there watching a movie. Considering they have such high entertainment value, you'll be surprised at how amazingly simple 3-D glasses are.

In this article, we'll take a look at the two most popular types of 3-D glasses in use today. But first, let's take a look at something called binocular vision.

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View-Master viewer

Photo courtesy Dan Metz

Binocular Vision

Most human beings come equipped with two eyes and an absolutely amazing binocular vision system. For objects up to about 20 feet (6 to 7 meters) away, the binocular vision system lets us easily tell with good accuracy how far away an object is. For example, if there are multiple objects in our field of view, we can automatically tell which ones are farther and which are nearer, and how far away they are. If you look at the world with one eye closed, you can still perceive distance, but your accuracy decreases and you have to rely on visual cues, which is slower.

To see how much of a difference the binocular vision system makes, have a friend throw you a ball and try to catch it while keeping one eye closed. Also try it in a fairly dark room or at night, where the difference is even more noticeable. It is much harder to catch a ball with only one eye open than with two eyes open. If you want to try a quick test of your binocular vision, visit this Web site.

The binocular vision system relies on the fact that our two eyes are spaced about 2 inches (5 centimeters) apart. Therefore, each eye sees the world from a slightly different perspective, and the binocular vision system in your brain uses the difference to calculate distance. Your brain has the ability to correlate the images it sees in its two eyes even though they are slightly different.

If you've ever used a View-Master or a stereoscopic viewer, you have seen your binocular vision system in action. In a View-Master, each eye is presented with an image. Two cameras photograph the same image from slightly different positions to create these images. Your eyes can correlate these images automatically because each eye sees only one of the images.

When you use a View-Master viewer, it's easy to see how your binocular vision system works.

Photo courtesy Dan Metz

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The red and blue lenses filter the two projected images allowing only one image to enter each eye.

3-D Viewing

In a movie theater, the reason why you wear 3-D glasses is to feed different images into your eyes just like a View-Master does. The screen actually displays two images, and the glasses cause one of the images to enter one eye and the other to enter the other eye. There are two common systems for doing this:

Red/Green or Red/Blue

Although the red/green or red/blue system is now mainly used for television 3-D effects, and was used in many older 3-D movies. In this system, two images are displayed on the screen, one in red and the other in blue (or green). The filters on the glasses allow only one image to enter each eye, and your brain does the rest. You cannot really have a color movie when you are using color to provide the separation, so the image quality is not nearly as good as with the polarized system.

Polarization

At Disney World, Universal Studios and other 3-D venues, the preferred method uses polarized lenses because they allow color viewing. Two synchronized projectors project two respective views onto the screen, each with a different polarization. The glasses allow only one of the images into each eye because they contain lenses with different polarization.

The polarized glasses allow only one of the images into each eye because each lens has a different polarization.

There are some more complicated systems as well, but because they are expensive they are not as widely used. For example, in one system, a TV screen displays the two images alternating one right after the other. Special LCD glasses block the view of one eye and then the other in rapid succession. This system allows color viewing on a normal TV, but requires you to buy special equipment.

3-D glasses with red/blue lenses

For more information on 3-D glasses and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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