I Am Stereoblind, But The 3DS Lets Me See The World As Others See It

I Am Stereoblind, But The 3DS Lets Me See The World As Others See It

I cried the first time I held a Nintendo 3DS. The experience was a revelation that I’ll not soon forget, and even if everyone stopped making games for it tomorrow, my blue 3DS XL is not going anywhere. That little machine is a window into a part of human experience that most people take for granted, but which is otherwise inaccessible to me.

124mm of Depth

I am mostly stereoblind. Stereoblindness is a blanket term for any condition that prevents a person from perceiving depth using binocular vision.

Depending on whom you ask, it affects somewhere between 3 and 15 per cent of the world’s population, which creates an interesting demographic hurdle for the 3D television industry. Some people are stereoblind because their vision in one eye is severely impaired, others because their brains are unable to coalesce images from both eyes into a three-dimensional result.

I’m very slightly cross-eyed. Not enough for anyone else to notice, but enough that my lines of sight intersect about 10-12 inches in front of my face and continue in divergent directions.

Basically, I have double vision all the time.

Childhood eye therapy and surgery (not LASIK — I had sutures on my left eyeball) helped a bit, but most of the time I just use one eye and ignore the other. Being stereoblind isn’t that much of a handicap; I can’t see Magic Eye images, and 3D movies are just 2D movies with lousy contrast, but that’s about it.

I say I’m “mostly” stereoblind because despite my eyes’ poor grasp of trigonometry, the optical centre of my brain seems to work just fine. I discovered this the first time I held a 3DS and played Pilotwings Resort. To be perfectly honest, I really didn’t expect much from the console. But clever readers have already noticed that my sight lines meet at just the right distance for holding a 3DS.

After playing with the depth slider off for a few minutes, I slid it up out of sheer curiosity and saw something I had never seen in my life: a third dimension.

“This is how other people see the world all the time.”

Not only was I “seeing into the screen” the way so many others feel when playing a 3DS for the first time, I was seeing in a direction that had previously been literally invisible to me.

It’s difficult to come up with a metaphor. Maybe it’s what Gomez saw the first time he spun the world in Fez. Maybe you can remember the first time you lay on the grass at night, looked up at the stars, and realised you weren’t looking up at all, because there is no “up”, and you were suddenly aware of being attached to the surface of a tiny sphere rolling through a vast emptiness. Or perhaps you once looked at an Escher woodcut long enough for the positive and negative space to switch places. I suppose any analogy would be imperfect; I was seeing a new piece of everyday reality.

As silly as it may seem to get an existential epiphany out of a $200 plastic gadget, the apparent solidity of the tiny simulacra on that screen made them seem almost more “real” than the world around me, which looked suddenly flat by comparison. It didn’t matter that they had three-digit polygon counts and textures that must have topped out at 512×512. I had never before perceived things as having volume, only a sort of surface area in terms of how much of my vision they took up. It was intoxicating. It was a glimpse into something that I immediately realised was part of everyone else’s normal experience. This is how other people see the world all the time. There’s nothing magical about the perception of depth.

“I had never known it was possible for reality to look this way — for things to look as solid as they feel.”

Yet there I was, holding this little chunk of plastic and silicon in my hands, tears streaming down my face because I had never known it was possible for reality to look this way — for things to look as solid as they feel. I couldn’t look away. I got a 3DS of my own the next day, and later replaced it with an XL. I revisited Hyrule in Ocarina of Time 3D, stopping and staring at every piece of architecture. I still spend more time running aimlessly through Super Mario 3D Land‘s gorgeous environments than I do trying to beat the game.

Wouldn’t anyone, if it were the only place where things had volume?

Sometimes I despair. Sometimes it’s hard to face the possibility of never being able to perceive mountains or forests or ancient ruins or modern cities or my parents or my fiancée with such depth as I can see Link opening a treasure chest inside an illuminated 4.88-inch rectangle. But ultimately, I’m incredibly lucky to have only this minor affliction to contend with. And in any case, it may even be possible to treat stereoblindness.

Until then, I’m keeping my 3DS.

George Kokoris is a senior designer at Rare Ltd. He’s an ex-cinematographer, graduate of Full Sail University, and former member of Microsoft Studios’ college hire program. He yells a lot and puts garlic on everything. You can follow him on Twitter @BurningNorth. Republished with permission.


    • Eye too appreciated the article.
      In all seriousness I had to do a colour blindness test for a work application once. Was bizarre – I had never really thought about visual impairments before. It must have been an amazing experience for George when that 3-D effect kicked in.

  • Curious George (that was unintended… but I’m standing by it), can you not see real life objects in 3D when they are at about 10-12 inches from your eyes?

    • I was thinking this too. I guess he probably can but a whole Ocarina of Time environ is probably more impressive than looking at your own hands or the bottom of your mug or anything else that’s 10-12 inches from your face.

    • I would think he could, but because a 3DS has the whole world 10 inches away, instead of seeing 10 inches of 3D, he could now see (at the very least) metres of 3D through the 3DS.

  • That was beautiful man :’)

    Also you can totally go around taking 3D photos of stuff right and seeing what it’s like? That’d be nice!

  • Great article. It’s also great to see the 3ds brings happiness to people beyond enjoyable gameplay experiences, or ten minutes of silence from the kids in the backseat.

  • Great article George. Thank you for sharing your experience.
    When you take 3D pictures with your 3DS XL, are you able to see more depth from them? I hope the answer is yes. This means you will get so much more out of every day photos. 🙂 Cheers.

  • It’s not just possible to cure it; but it would be possible to build a device now that gave you good vision of your surroundings with stereo. In fact you could do it with consumer electronics, just, that version would be pretty heavy.

  • a bit choked up after this TBH. i have a friend with a similar affliction but this unfortunately won’t help her, her eyes go the other way.

  • Fascinating read.
    I wonder if something like this might possibly be able to be used as some form of eye training perhaps?
    It might help train a person with this affliction to be able to better process 3d information beyond their current depth limitation?
    Probably doesn’t work like that, but just a thought.

  • I enjoy hearing about things like this. Not quite to the same extent, but back when the 3DS was fairly new I figured out a way for people to use it as a magic eye picture viewer, and got a whole bunch of people to test out whether it worked for them. A large proportion of people who had never been able to “see” the image before were finally seeing them for the first time in their lives, and the exclamations and amazement were really great to hear.

  • Awesome article, sick of all the “3D sucks and everyone knows it” crap all the time. The author should also get a HTC Evo 3D phone, it uses the same method to create glasses free 3D.

  • Take a picture of your parents and fiance using the 3DS then you can see them with depth!

  • That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time – “I can’t see in 3D…”

    I know, I know, not funny. But I can’t help it!

  • Great article. It’s like hearing about those people that ‘hear’ for the first time after getting cochlear implants.

    I would love to hear how oculus rift go for you.

    Also makes me wonder. IF you mounted a 3d camera with a direct feed into the oculus rift, would it allow you to ‘see 3d’ in the real world? Would be a cool experiment.

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