Your Brain At the Movies: The History of 3D

If you are a movie goer, you’ve probably noticed that many major movies released are now available to watch in 3D. The technology isn’t new; in fact, filmmakers have been using and perfecting 3D viewing since the 1920s. If you love 3D movies then you don’t want to miss this episode of Brain Games, which explores the ways our brain helps us visualize our world in three dimensions. There is no doubt that people are fascinated by 3D.

The First 3D Movies

While the first 3D movies were rudimentary compared to the technology we have today, they definitely got audiences’ attention. The first commercially released 3D film was The Power of Love, a black and white silent film which was released in 1922. This was the first film that made use of the anaglyph glasses with one red and one green lens and two film reels. Viewers were able to experience 3D and they also had the option of viewing two different endings to the film. Audiences could watch through either the green or red lens to get a happy ending or a tragic one in 2D. Unfortunately, the movie was never widely released and has since been lost.

It wasn’t until the 50s that 3D really took off, however. The 1952 release of Bwana Devil based on the true story of the man-eating lions in Tsavo is considered to be the first feature-length 3-D film in color. It is also considered the movies that started the rage for 3D. While the movie panned by critics, audiences couldn’t get enough. Polaroid, which produced the anaglyph glasses, couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Today’s 3D Movies.

After having a “golden age” in the 1950s, the popularity of 3D movies died down for several decades. In the 1980s, 3D had a rebirth when IMAX and The Walt Disney Company began producing nonfiction films in the format, starting with We Are Born of Stars in 1985. This led to the introduction of more 3D releases of mainstream movies in the early 2000s in addition to the 2D versions. By 2009, when the movie Avatar was released, 3D had exploded back on the movie scene again.  Internationally, Avatar opened with 3,671 theaters showing the film in 3D. While many debate whether or not 3D really enhances the viewing experience or detracts from it, there is no question that we are in the second golden age of 3D.

So how does the brain make 3D work in everyday life? While you may assume that you see the world around us in 3D we actually can only perceive two dimensions, height and width. It is the way the brain interprets what the eyes see that creates the illusion of 3 dimensions, utilizing cues such as size and shading, and then performs complicated calculations to figure out where objects are positioned in space.

Want to know more? This week, Brain Games explores how optical illusions are a great way to reveal the powerful mechanisms that allow your brain to perceive 3D. Don’t miss Brain Games: Illusion Confusion Monday at 9 PM et/pt and add some dimension to your viewing!


  1. Eric Kurland
    United States
    June 18, 2013, 2:15 pm

    Thank you for your post and episode on 3-D. Most people are not aware that binocular stereopsis was “discovered” by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, and that 3-D photography has been around since the 1850s. The American Civil War was documented in 3-D (including several 3-D portraits of Abraham Lincoln), and throughout the latter half of the 19th century, 3-D photographic view cards were the predominant form of mass entertainment. Experiments in stereoscopic movies date back to cinema’s earliest days at the turn of the 20th century.

    I’d like to point out an error in your post (and in the website for this Brain Games episode) – Bwana Devil, and in fact all of the 3-D motion pictures released between 1952-1954 were exhibited using polarized glasses, not anaglyph. The Polaroid corporation had perfected the linear polarizer, and first demonstrated dual-strip polarized 3-D projection to audiences at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. While red/blue or red/green anaglyph glasses were used in the 1950s for 3-D comic books, they were NOT used for 3-D cinema.

    There were also two errors in the episode itself – in the demonstration of how binocular stereopsis works, the left-eye and right-eye view illustrations of bowling pins were reversed and incorrectly labeled. And the word stereoscopic comes from the greek “stereo” which means “solid” and “scopic” which refers to vision. It litereally means “to see solid”. In the same way, stereophonic means “to hear solid”. Stereo does not mean “left and right” or 2-channel.

    To learn more about 3-D vision and image creation, people can visit one of the many 3-D societies around the country, including the National Stereoscopic Association at and the Los Angeles 3-D Club at

  2. Adam
    June 24, 2013, 8:17 pm

    I just watched this episode on 3d. Why did you lie about the scene in room service? These are clearly not anamorphic images when the waiter is laying them out. The cracker moves on the cheese plate and the dancing candle flame is visible within the flower glass. This one scene made me second guess all the previous episodes. Not cool.

  3. Philipp Kornreich
    Syracuse University, EECS Dept. Syracuse, NY 13244
    July 3, 2013, 3:59 pm

    We don’t just see in 2D. Each eye can see in 3D with each eye without the aid of binocular vision. Each rod or cone at a pixel in our eyes can measure the distance to the point on the object that is in focus at that pixel. That is the eye can measure the distance from the pixel in the eye where the corner of the lip of your friend is in focus to your friend’s lip corner. We carnivores have forward looking eyes. The field of view of our eyes overlaps. Thus we have stereoscopic
    vision. But herbivores have their eyes on the side of the head. They can see to the rear. But they have little stereoscopic vision. But we believe that they can see in 3D with each eye. For more information contact me: Philipp Kornreich, Syracuse University, EECS Department, e-mail:
    We recently published four articles on this subject.