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How Do 3D Glasses Work?

3D glasses create an immersive cinematic experience by filtering images to each eye, creating depth perception akin to real-life vision. They use polarized or shutter technology to ensure each eye sees a slightly different angle, tricking the brain into perceiving depth. Curious about the science behind this visual magic? Dive deeper to uncover the fascinating mechanics of 3D glasses.
Marco Sumayao
Marco Sumayao

Three-dimensional (3D) glasses work by manipulating the mechanics of stereoscopic vision to create an illusion of depth. Stereoscopic vision, the ability of humans to see with both eyes, interprets the input from the left and right eye as a single image, even if the eyes see objects at different angles. This allows individuals to gauge distance and depth on three-dimensional objects, but not on flat images, where the eyes see little difference in perspective. 3D glasses, combined with specially-produced images or videos, allow each eye to see a different image, which in turn allows an individual's stereoscopic vision to interpret depth.

Stereoscopic vision allows a person to see an object's depth and distance due in large part to the fact that a person's left and right eye are situated about 3 inches (7.62 cm) apart on average. This creates a slight difference between each eye's field of vision; individuals will notice this by staring at objects with only the left eye closed, then with just the right eye closed. Since the two eyes see things at different angles, the brain integrates both streams of information into a single 3D object. This ability is limited, however, when objects are presented in a flat two-dimensional image, as they are on television and movie screens. 3D glasses overcome this limitation by allowing a different image to enter each eye with the use of color filters or specially-polarized lenses.

3D allows a person's eyes to each see images that appear to have depth and distance.
3D allows a person's eyes to each see images that appear to have depth and distance.

3D movies, when viewed without 3D glasses, often appear blurry or slightly distorted. This is due to the fact that there are actually two slightly different images on the screen, each at a slightly different angle from the other. 3D glasses separate the two images from each other, presenting one to the left eye and the other to the right. This replicates the effect of stereoscopic vision on 3D objects, allowing the images on 3D television and movie screens to appear to have depth despite their two-dimensional nature.

3D glasses may be used for gaming.
3D glasses may be used for gaming.

There are two techniques used to created 3D illusions: color filtering and lens polarization. Color filtering makes use of 3D glasses with differently-colored lenses — often red and blue — to block out one of the on-screen images from each eye. Producing both the images and the glasses is generally low-cost, but the images suffer a color loss due to the filters. Modern technology uses images filmed with different polarizations to create the 3D illusion with minimal color loss. 3D glasses using this technique have lenses with differing polarizations — one lens to match each on-screen images polarization — to create a sense of depth.

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Discussion Comments


Modern 3D movies are facing the same fate as the original 1950s 3D movies. People still see the process as a gimmick or fad, not an enhancement of the movie experience. It really is difficult to watch an entire 3D movie without removing those glasses and looking at something else for a minute or two. Human eyes and brains just aren't designed to handle all of that 3D image processing for two hours straight. No wonder a lot of people develop headaches.

I remember watching a few old school 3D movies with the blue/red filters and feeling dizzy after ten minutes. The effect was definitely cool while it lasted, but most of the movies were grade Z horror or detective flicks. Throwing things at the audience was impressive, but I liked seeing things in depth better. It really looked like the monster was running to the back of the spaceship or the killer was hiding in a distant closet.

I saw the 3D version of "The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader" and was still impressed by the sense of depth they created. But there were times when I would have rather been paying attention to the story and the characters instead of looking at the background or foreground for cool 3D effects. I predict that the major movie companies are going to ratchet back on the 3D in the next few years, or at least limit its use to the types of movies where that sort of thing is useful. I think they come up with a version of 3D that won't require glasses, but it will probably be used for animation more often than live action.


I worry about the emphasis on 3D movies and television. I don't have stereoscopic vision, and get headaches when I try to watch the screen.

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    • 3D allows a person's eyes to each see images that appear to have depth and distance.
      By: bevangoldswain
      3D allows a person's eyes to each see images that appear to have depth and distance.
    • 3D glasses may be used for gaming.
      By: godfer
      3D glasses may be used for gaming.