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.

The future of YouTube.
There are at least 10,000 3-D videos on YouTube and you don’t even need special glasses to appreciate them


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.

Kurland, who curates frequent festivals of stereo shorts and serves as president of the Los Angeles 3-D Club, argues that Hollywood studios are biased toward using very conservative stereography techniques, so as to minimize the potential for eyestrain or visual distortion. A 3-D guy on a summer blockbuster will try to ensure that the effects look OK in any theatrical context, even for people watching on a 40-foot screen from the first few rows. But that approach can leave Hollywood 3-D looking underwhelming and uninspired. “The studios have a lot on the line with a tent-pole feature,” he says, “but at the independent and enthusiast level, people have more room to experiment.”

Along with the 3-D filmmaker and historian Ray Zone, Kurland curates a YouTube channel called 3-DIY, which highlights films made using everything from consumer-grade camcorders and 3-D cellphones to elaborate dual-camera hacks. They’ve championed the work of vivid experimentalists such as Santiago Caicedo, a Colombian filmmaker who combines unusual stereoscopy methods with computer- and hand-drawn animation. The hybrid video below, called “Moving Still,” was shot through the windows of a moving train, and there are several other gorgeous Caicedo shorts available online.

Another dazzling hobbyist, Takashi Sekitani, posts his work to YouTube from his home in Saitama, Japan. He’s posted some videos in what’s called “hyperstereo” 3-D, in which the two recording cameras are positioned farther apart than normal. In most cases, a 3-D filmmaker would position the cameras at less than 2.5 inches apart—the distance between the eyes on an adult face. But using an extra-wide separation allows filmmakers like Sekitani to exaggerate the effect and give the appearance of depth even to distant objects. For the fireworks clip below, Sekitani spilt his cameras by 50 feet, giving the explosions a dreamy, globular form. When we’re watching fireworks in real life, they tend to look flattened out and far away. Seen in hyperstereo, they explode in a luscious volume of sparks.

Hyperstereo views of city streets or landscapes can make a scene look weirdly miniaturized, too. This “dollhouse effect” comes off as an unfortunate glitch in mainstream 3-D films—see, for example, the scene in Avatar when it looks like Colonel Quaritch is addressing a battalion of GI Joes. But Sekitani uses this to his advantage in the time-lapsed montage below. Other filmmakers, like Ryan Suits, have also exploited stereoscopy “flaws” to create strange visual effects.

As is often the case with online video, some of the best clips are the personal, oddball ones. “It’s kind of fun because a lot of the current stuff is more YouTube-y,” said Bradshaw, the engineer, in a 2010 interview with Gizmodo. “Instead of being this blockbuster or some guy working a CGI animation, it’s just like, ‘hey, here is my garden.’” Indeed, gardens make such a lovely subject for homemade 3-D that they appear to have inspired an international subgenre. Lately I’ve been following a stereo-outdoors-enthusiast based in Springfield, Mo.—screenname: “3DMOVIEMAN”—who likes to record his walks in the park. The video below, of flowers and plants swaying in the wind, is a wonderful antidote to the mutilated 3-D of the cineplex. If you’re tempted to write off 3-D as a gimmick or Hollywood marketing scheme, it might be worth spending a few minutes online instead, for some quiet, cross-eyed contemplation.