The revival of 3D movies in recent years has prompted much debate among fans and critics. Some say it’s gimmicky and too expensive. Others have heralded the return of the technology as the industry’s saviour. A key claim in favour of 3D technology is that it makes for a more realistic, immersive experience. But does it really?
Brendan Rooney and his colleagues at University College Dublin showed 8 different movie clips (ranging from 13 to 68 seconds in length) to 27 participants (13 males; average age 27). The gory clips were chosen deliberately for their disgusting content and were taken from Bugs 3D, Friday 13th, Jaws 3-D and Frankenstein.
Each participant watched the clips alone in a mini-cinema on campus featuring a 2.5m x 2.5m screen. Crucially, half the participants viewed the clips in 3D, the others in 2D. To ensure any effects of the 3D format were not due to novelty, all the participants watched an abridged version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 3D, at least 24 hours prior to the study proper.
Participants in the 3D condition reported finding the film clips more realistic. They also had a higher heart rate whilst watching the clips compared with participants in the 2D condition. However, there was no difference in amount of skin conductance (another measure of arousal) between the two groups, and no difference in how much they said they enjoyed the clips.
Rooney and his colleagues explain that skin conductance – that is, the skin’s sweatiness – is influenced only by the sympathetic nervous system (which triggers the fight or flight response) and not by the parasympathetic nervous system (which calms us down). By contrast, heart rate is influenced by both. This suggests to them that the calming parasympathetic nervous system is less active in viewers of 3D. Why? Well, one theory for how we calm our emotions during films is by reminding ourselves that they’re not real. The 3D viewers said they found the viewing experience more realistic and it’s possible that this made it more difficult for them to step outside of the experience, leaving their emotional response relatively unchecked. The researchers concede that the causal direction could also run the other way – the 3D viewers raised heart rate could cause them to perceive the experience as more realistic. Most likely the influences are bi-directional.
Is it a good thing that the 3D clips were rated as more realistic and triggered more physiological arousal? The 3D viewers didn’t rate the clips as any more enjoyable, but then they only gave these ratings afterwards, which means they were relying on their memory of the experience. Also, they had no baseline to measure their ratings against. Finally, perhaps “enjoyment” is the wrong word when it comes to disgusting movie clips. If the study were repeated with a different genre, perhaps 3D viewers would give higher enjoyment ratings.
Rooney’s team stressed that this was an exploratory study and that more research is clearly needed. For now they concluded the “suspension of disbelief is … assisted by stereoscopic depth, with associated increases in reported perceived apparent reality and in heart-rate … “.
Rooney, B., Benson, C., and Hennessy, E. (2012). The apparent reality of movies and emotional arousal: A study using physiological and self-report measures Poetics, 40 (5), 405-422 DOI: 10.1016/j.poetic.2012.07.004