Stop Comparing VR to 3D Televisions

by Phil Johnston • August 5th, 2016

It’s time to put a played-out argument to rest: Virtual reality is not going to end up like 3D TV.

The basis behind the argument is that they both are “3D” and require wearing some sort of headset or glasses. Saying VR is the same as 3D TV is like saying that looking out a window is the same as being outside, or that flying in an airplane is the same as skydiving. While VR and 3D TV share some characteristics, the smallest differences can have the largest impact – just 1.2% of our DNA separates us from chimpanzees, after all.

So what’s that 1% that makes 3D TV a fad and VR the last communication medium?

It comes down to tricking our brains. When you’re watching a 3D TV, it’s obvious to your brain what is happening – you’re looking at a screen on the other side of the room. This disconnect prevents any feeling of immersion. Split that screen in two and put it right in front of your eyes, and you would think your brain would again know what is going on.

But it doesn’t. It’s not so obvious that you’re just looking at a mini dual-TV attached to your face. This is the power of VR; you know it’s fake, but at the same time part of your brain really believes it’s real. If you have not a compelling VR experienced for yourself yet, it can be hard to believe that such a small difference could have such a profound result.

Just take a look at the people in the above video having visceral reactions in VR while playing The Brookhaven Experiment – you don’t see anything close to that happening with 3D TV. VR circumvents the rational part of our brain telling us that it’s fake, appealing to our deeper emotional responses. VR feels so real, that it’s helping heal people in reality — dealing with pain, PTSD, phobias, and loneliness.

This is why so many major corporations and universities are now backing VR as the ultimate medium. It has the potential to bring people, places, and experiences closer together than ever before.

Outside of the normal TV manufacturers, how many other major tech companies got involved with 3D TV? Where were the VCs and incubators focused on 3D TV? How many universities offered “3D TV studies” or majors? Was 3D TV used as a tool in the medical field? Did journalists and entertainers rush to 3D TV as the ultimate method of connecting with their viewers?

Contrast this to VR. Just about every major tech company is throwing their hat in the ring. Highly respected universities like Stanford, MIT, and CMU are pushing VR. Journalists have fully embraced VR as “the empathy machine,” and major entertainment companies from Fox  to the NFL are backing it. So many of the top brands and companies are using VR, it would probably be easier to list those who aren’t.

3d wizard 3dtv

Source: Amazon

Despite all of this validation, virtual reality is still in its early days and has a few years of development ahead of it. Mainstream adoption will take even longer. Headsets may be clunky, cabled beasts, but VR is already solving real-world problems. It will not fade away — no matter how long it takes to catch on with the general public.

While VR and 3D TVs are clearly two different creatures, there are lessons to be learned in 3D TV’s downfall. 3D TV failed for a few reasons.

It was expensive, lacked compelling content, and couldn’t match the quality and experience of watching a 3D movie in a theatre. VR is already having to face these same challenges — price, content, and most importantly, meeting expectations — to penetrate the consumer market.

However, VR is still such a useful tool for certain applications in its current state. Whereas 3D TV needed immediate mass adoption, VR can slowly work it’s way into our daily lives.

vr healthcare lessons

3D TVs were a gimmicky consumer electronic device. Virtual reality is a communication platform that will make the world a closer and better place. There is no comparison between the two.

This article was contributed by Phil Johnston. Phil is the CoFounder of Virt — a startup bringing reality into virtual reality with robots. Phil’s been working in VR for the past two years and is constantly thinking about the future of VR and robotics. You can visit him at Virt’s booth (e19) at VRLA this weekend to learn more. You can follow him on Twitter: @virt_phil.

Featured Image: Shutterstock

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What's your reaction?
  • Ombra Alberto


  • Anthony Clay

    There are exactly 2 camps that I’ve encountered while conducting a survey before/after exposing people to VR for their first time.

    2. That’s awesome, but I’m feeling a little queasy.
    3. I can’t see in 3D because of [insert medical issue here]. but I *still* feel immersed!

    3DTV was a gimmick no one really wanted, right along w/”3D movies” – (which aren’t 3D as much as they are “2.5D”) universally panned as overpriced and gimmicky. It has no industrial/medical/educational application what-so-ever. And LESS than zero interactivity, as you can’t “focus” on what you want on screen, which makes Michael Bay-ish action shots extra confusion. …you’re better off with a flat screen. 3DTV It has already run its course.

    VR is a nascent technology that is still in an early adopter phase. But many of those adopters are COMPANIES. There’s no creative end of the application of remote presence, visualization, entertainment, medical (from psych to surgery), space, education, AND television. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that VR has had more investment and R&D than 3DTV ever had.

    tl;dr: 3DTV was just a gimmick to upgrade 1080p HDTVs again. VR’s only vehement naysayers are those who haven’t tried it.

    • druout1944 .

      You’re missing #4. Interesting as a novelty, but not interesting enough to have staying power

  • Thomas Longberg

    I very much agree with this article. One small error though: The use of the term “screen door effect”. It’s actually just a term for when the resolution of a display is low enough that you can see the boundaries between the pixels, which kind of looks like there’s a screen door in front of the, well, screen, hence the name. It’s an issue with early VR headsets as your eyes are so close to the screen(s), but will quickly become irrelevant as the displays get better.

    Anyway thanks for the article!

    EDIT: You fixed it already! Thanks 🙂

  • CMcD

    Excellent article! I envision a future where every game has two ways to play, either being inside the game through VR or staring through a window using your tv. I’ve had VR for months now (rift and vive) and I enjoy the freedom of going somewhere in VR intermingled with playing something on my tv. I definitely trend towards wanting to play VR more than the traditional flat screen experience but I wouldn’t want the flat screen experience to ever go away entirely. I love the seated experiences I’ve had in the rift and I adore the room scale experiences I have had in the vive.

    This is an interesting piece of tech, because it does not immediately cannibalize another type of tech, it becomes its own thing just as smart phones did a few years back. And just like smartphones, if you don’t own a VR headset yet, you will definitely own a VR head set sometime in the next decade.

  • Diego Lopez

    I wish Nintendo joined the VR market as Steam, Sony and Microsoft (next year), make NX Wiirtual Boy. I can’t wait to try Dolphin VR !

  • Yes, VR glasses with motion sensors have an advantage, but so does 3D TV. However, with a pretty simple box, most of the content of 3D VR could be ported to 3D TV or vice versa. So why not just do it? Maybe I missed something. Might have to move a knob or your foot instead of your neck, but how hard is that? Streaming 3D games to 3D TV, why not? Can you say “consorting with the consortium”?

  • VR does look good but it will only work if manufacturers start working together on it rather than dictating to the end consumer that they need their device for their computer.

    At the moment we have so many different variations of VR – you have Sony VR, Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard VR, and soon Microsoft Hololens. Now I have a PC, Xbox One and PS4 and I tend to play games on any one of these systems. The good thing is I have one big TV which has all three of these systems plugged up to it, so if I want to play on the Xbox One I just put the TV on to the Xbox One HDMI channel, if I want to play PC then I switch to PC channel, or if I want to play PS4 I switch to PS4 channel.

    But the problem with VR is that if I was to buy an Oculus Rift for the PC I’d also need to buy a Sony VR for the PS4, and a Microsoft Hololens for the Xbox One – that’s like buying 3 TV’s for three different devices and then having to switch devices for each different game, where as it would be much easier to have one device that could do all three. I know that would be hard because ultimately Sony would love PS4 owners to only be able to play Sony PS4’s on a Sony TV but you can play any console on anything with a HDMI input, and they need to make VR compatible in the same way with a number of devices.