Why 3-D? Why now? And for heaven’s sake, why for journalism? The University of Missouri 3-D Journalism project — MU3D — developed from a fortuitous meeting of professors from two very different professional schools.

Bimal Balakrishnan is an architect, prolific researcher and expert in human-computer interaction. Specifically, he looks at how computers can provide expanded visual opportunities to increase the quality of our work and improve our lives.

I’m an experienced newsman who studies the emerging technologies and processes that both help and threaten journalism.

Some time ago, I joined a campus committee on a tour of Bimal’s lab in the MU Department of Architecture. To say I was stunned puts it lightly. He and his graduate students had used off-the-shelf materials to build an 18-foot-wide, rear-projection screen with multiple projectors that produce incredible 3-D images. They explored the tech world to find the best software, computers and accessories they could afford.

“Afford” was a keyword for me. Journalism organizations are famous for running on shoestring budgets. A commercial 3-D system could cost $250,000 or more. Bimal built one for a few thousand.

Images in three dimensions make perfect sense for the architecture world. Gone is the day when clients simply trusted the instinct of the architect to design a multi-million interior for a major office building. With 3-D, the architects can make their renderings so real that both they and the client can “walk through” the building before spending the big bucks on it.

A similar need for enhanced realism has made 3-D imaging popular in science, entertainment, medicine and other fields.

But not journalism.

With a grant from the Mizzou Advantage program, Bimal and I set out to fix that.

I believe that 3-D is part of the natural progression toward realism that has been a key part of the evolution of journalism. The best way to tell a story is face-to-face – communication with words, sights, facial expressions, sounds, environmental background, etc. How we do everything in journalism is an attempt to gain that type of interaction.

Historically, we added engravings to gray banks of type to give newspapers a sense of “you were there.” Later black-and-white photographs, then moving images on television and eventually, color images both on TV and in newspapers. Each was more “real” than the other, but each was resisted by naysayers in the newsroom.

I was part of newspapers’ move to color. It was ugly, both on the page and in the newsroom culture. We were comfortable with black-and-white but knew little about composing color shots. The processing equipment and presses were still developing, so putting a color photo on Page 1 was agonizingly slow and usually resulted in a stomach-churning blur of unnatural colors.

Within a few years, however, sharp color photos were in almost every paper. Today news photographers take all of their photos in color without hesitation, using computers to switch them to black-and-white if necessary.

If you are going to step up from color, where do you go? We believe an evolution to 3-D makes sense.

Today 3-D is much like early color photography. It is difficult to capture and even harder to process and edit. The available cameras are crude and better suited to hobbyists. To top it off, no one can see the images without wearing uncomfortable glasses and sitting in front of some sort of special screen.

That technology, however, will continue to improve. That’s the nature of technology.

MU3D will try to get ahead of the trend. We believe that journalists and other communicators need to know how to “think 3-D” well before the technology improvements make realistic images commonplace.

We must develop procedures and processes that allow us to capture and share 3-D images and videos in minutes instead of the days and weeks filmmakers and others have at their disposal. We must learn to use 3-D to tell the story in a more personal, impactful and realistic manner. We must explore the multitude and ever-changing formats for 3-D to find what will work for our audiences.

It will be ugly, I’m sure. Most of our first images and videos are literally not ready for prime time. Most journalists already scoff at the idea. And most of what we do will be frustrating and slow.

But for heaven’s sake, this is progress — and journalism.


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