The Pleasures of YouTube in Three Dimensions
There’s marvelous 3-D video on the site, and you don’t need glasses to see it.
In September 2010, the viral rockers OK Go put out a music video for "White Knuckles"—an elaborate, single-take dance routine performed with the help of a dozen trained dogs. The clip produced more than 14 million views on YouTube. Then in April 2012, the band released a second version, shot concurrently with the first but using a stereoscopic camera. That one, the 3-D version, has reached a tiny fraction of the original's audience despite being the superior—and by that I mean "more adorable"—product. This isn't format partisanship: Seen in stereo depth, the dancing doggies, already sugar-sweet with their joyful leaps and waggy tails, reach an even higher echelon of cuteness. White Knuckles is good Web content; White Knuckles 3-D is spectacular.
That fact should remind us that the overblown revival of movie-theater 3-D has an underappreciated counterpart on the small screen. In the summer of 2009, a few months before Avatar opened, a YouTube engineer named Pete Bradshaw rigged up a way to show 3-D content in a variety of formats. Three years later, his simple platform has become a venue for some of the most thrilling and innovative work now being done in three dimensions. In an era of limp, stereoscopic blockbusters like Men in Black 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man—and a time when the major studios "have taken this language, this amazing new medium, and kidnapped it, stolen it, mutilated it beyond recognition," as Pina-director Wim Wenders said last summer—YouTube has quietly become a repository for at least 10,000 uploaded 3-D shorts, some of them quite brilliant. And they can all be viewed at no cost whatsoever and without the benefit of fancy equipment.
The opportunity to watch any of these films without special glasses is one of the perks of Bradshaw's platform. YouTube content flagged as "3-D," like the White Knuckles video embedded below, comes with a menu of viewing options. (Click the "3D Options" button on the bottom-right to see the choices.) There are settings for anaglyph format—that's the kind you watch through two-color glasses—and for basic 3DTV technologies. But it's the "no glasses/cross-eyed" setting that really opens up the medium. Cross-eyed 3-D involves no special hardware, just a pair of image tracks presented side-by-side in the YouTube video frame.
To watch a 3-D video without glasses, start by focusing on the white dots located just above each video track in YouTube. Now cross your eyes so that you can see those dots in double-vision, with the original pair appearing as four arranged in a line along the top of the frame. If you focus your attention on the two middle dots, you should be able to coax them together by letting your eyes drift inward, until the images overlap and then fuse into a single dot. When that happens, you're all set: Just direct your gaze downward and you'll see a similarly-fused 3-D video at the center of YouTube window. This may take a bit of practice, and extended viewing may leave your eyes feeling tired. But for most of us, it's a lot easier than it sounds. (Click here for a video tutorial, presented in creepy-anime format.)
The cross-eyed method isn't just a hack for those who don’t have the money for a 3-D television or the energy to a find a pair of red-cyan glasses. It has its own advantages and special charms. While anaglyph viewing gives 3-D video a muddy shimmer, and polarized glasses tend to darken the image, going cross-eyed yields a bright, clear, and unmediated stereo view (once you get the hang of it). Like one of those Magic Eye books from the 1990s, the trick can approach a hallucinatory experience, giving the sense of a diorama seen through a wormhole. It's not an "immersive" experience, in the way of giant-screen IMAX, but it’s an intensely personal and absorbing one, with the world around you fuzzing away into the background. Watch a 3-D music video cross-eyed, and it's like there's a private concert being staged in your screen. (To make cross-eyed 3-D look even better, crop out the extraneous images on the right and left by holding your hands up to your face like you're finishing a game of peek-a-boo. The creepy anime girl will show you how.)
Once you've got the method down, try watching a second OK Go video in 3-D, "All Is Not Lost," which was posted online just a few weeks ago. For this one, the band recruited the Pilobolus company to dance on a sheet of Plexiglas, and recorded their performance from beneath their feet. A 2-D version of the video came out in 2011, but again, there's no question as to which format yields the more effective piece of pop art. Seen flat, “All Is Not Lost” gives an intriguing study in patterns and motion. But Eric Kurland, the indie stereographer who handled the 3-D (as he did for the "White Knuckles" video), arranged his cameras so that the Plexiglas would appear to be on the same plane as your laptop monitor. "It's like they're dancing on the inside of the screen," Kurland says, while their bodies recede into the space behind.