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I've been following Tom Zerega's excellent series on "Demystifying 3D" in this publication. He has me wondering, is 3D the next big thing for digital signage? What is it that makes 3D so valuable, and in what circumstances does its value truly shine? What are the barriers to adoption? What is it going to take to move it from being a novelty to being widely used?

Tom touches on a variety of ideas throughout his articles that reveal:

  • Engagement is essential for effective digital signage.
  • Autostereoscopic (glasses-free) 3D can break down the "fourth wall," reaching out and grabbing the attention of people in an overcrowded market.
  • Thus, autostereoscopic 3D is potentially the wave of the future for delivering customer engagement.

This is another way of saying that autostereoscopic 3D delivers a real "Wow!" factor at a time when that is increasingly difficult to do especially in our continually growing world of new technology. 3D can deliver both more eyeballs and higher dwell times to kiosks, screens and beyond.

All of these ideas, in my opinion, are true, except possibly that autostereoscopic 3D is potentially the wave of the future. But let's set that last idea aside for the moment and look at the other side of the coin.

Tom also says:

  • It's critical that 3D be done right or else it will not be effective. It won't deliver on its promise, and the extra investment will have been wasted.
  • Doing it right requires special tools, knowledge and experience.

Let's take a deeper look into these ideas as we try to answer the question "Is 3D technology the next big thing?".

First, 3D must be done right. As Tom says: "And 3D is even more fragile than 2D, since content that fails in 3D is more disastrous than perhaps pixilated, choppy or improperly formatted 2D content."

I believe that this is abundantly true — perhaps more than any other previous technological innovation in the field of digital content, such as the widespread use of video or interactive content. After all, 2D is already an abstraction to the viewer. We're already a level removed from reality, and that makes us more tolerant. But we live in 3D. So when a 3D experience is offered, if it is at variance with the reality that we live in every moment, we will notice it, even if those variances are minor. And when we do, the spell is broken. The fourth wall is back in place and engagement is greatly reduced. Our attention is now on the dissonance of the experience, not the message being delivered. It can even lead the viewer to feel unwell — not exactly the association that the advertiser is looking for.

But "doing it right" is not an inexpensive proposition. 3D technology not only opens entirely new possibilities, but also imposes new creative rules that must be learned. This learning takes time, and the people doing the learning are already highly creative and highly paid talent.

Top quality 3D productions also require special expertise in lighting, shading, animation and modeling. We're talking about either one supremely talented individual or a team of creative people working together. Finally, we need developers with expertise in specialized tools. The tools themselves are expensive, but more importantly they require a great deal of expertise, which takes time and is expensive to acquire. Tom recommends a lot of specialized training and I am certain that he is right in calling for it.

And yet you can't fall short. Cutting corners by using 2D-to-3D conversion tools, for example, is a mistake. 3D that is not done well is just ... well ... cheesy. Rather than adding value to your message, it detracts. The number one promise for 3D right now is to provide that "Wow!" factor to your audience, and they are already conditioned to have very high standards. Poor 3D doesn't provide the "Wow!" factor, instead it makes the content seem dated, just like an old video game. You will have a better success rate in engaging your viewer by using a quality non-3D implementation.

Another potential issue in 3D implementation relates to combining autostereoscopic 3D and interactive touchscreen signage. These two technologies don't necessarily go together well right now ... I think these barriers will be overcome in time, but for now you have to choose one or the other on an individual display. This is a limiting factor because interactive digital signage is a very effective way of increasing the level of engagement.

What does all this mean for both the present day and the future? For now, I think it means that 3D is relegated to the "Land of Big Budgets" — companies with the resources to invest in top quality 3D development and deploy on a scale to make the investment reasonable. That's not necessarily a bad thing because the special "Wow!" factor that 3D can deliver is dependent on novelty. And for a while, at least, that novelty is guaranteed by the high cost of production for 3D. Companies that can afford it stand to get a good return on their investment.

The future is less clear. The revolution in any technology comes when it becomes accessible to a vastly larger group of people. If and when that happens with 3D for digital signage it means that the novelty factor will have long since worn off and in turn means that 3D will have to be valuable in some other way. Perhaps it will come to pass that by virtue of its accessibility 3D becomes the standard and 2D signage starts to feel old fashioned in the same way that color TV quickly replaced black-and-white.

This 3D revolution will be fascinating to witness. Feel free to comment on this article with your guess as to what will happen — I'll be interested to hear your thoughts.

Join the discussion; leave your comments below.

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Don Pierson
Don Pierson is founder and president at Flypaper Studio Inc., a subsidiary of Trivantis Corp. He has two decades experience in interactive communications and founded Interactive Alchemy before developing what is now Flypaper digital signage software.
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