3D better than 2D, says your brain

People are 12 per cent more attentive when watching Blu-ray 3D compared to a conventional Blu-ray disc and 29 per cent more attentive when that same 3D experience is up against a plain old DVD. So says recent research commissioned by the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA). The results of the study, which is good news for 3D evangelists, also showed that people are 7 per cent more engaged when watching Blu-rays in 3D as well.

But how were these results collected and just how believable are they? Pocket-lint was invited to take an exclusive peek at the testing procedure and also to take part. Read on to find out what happened.

The tests were carried by the Mindlab International team, based at the Sussex Innovation Centre in Brighton which is essentially an incubation home for tech companies. Mindlab is a neuromarketing company founded by company chairman, director of research and "father of neuromarketing" Dr David Lewis-Hodgson in the early 90s, under the slightly alarming title of StressWatch. Thankfully in 2005, the name was changed to the infinitely more friendly sounding MindLab.

On arrival at Mindlab HQ, we had the whole test process explained to us by Mindlab's MD and director of operations, Duncan Smith, and his friendly team of data analysts and researchers. The technology used by Mindlab may look like something out of a science-fiction film, but it's actually called EEG testing (or electroencephalography to give it its full title) which provides quantifiable data on brain activity that's combined with EDA (electro-derman activity) readings taken from small electrodes on the hand which measure stress indicators such as sweat. The point behind all this is to understand responses to subconscious influences, in this case a selection of film clips.

We were rigged up to various pieces of monitoring equipment and fitted with a rather unflattering skull cap with electrodes pertruding, which was attached to the scalp using conductive gel (the type that's used for ultrasound scans). A heart rate monitor was fitted to the pulse points on our arm and and stress indicators were attached to the middle and index fingers of the left hand. Rigged up like Ben Stiller in "Meet the Parents", we were then put to work watching a series of film clips in a darkened room. There were 24 participants in all (12 male and 12 female), although only two of us were tested at a time. All the participants were aged between 18 and 54, with an average age of 34.

We had to watch nine film clips in total, comprising DVD, Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray snippets from action-packed epic "Clash of the Titans" (the remake), CGI animated comedy "Despicable Me" and daft dance movie "Step Up". It was fairly obvious which clip was on which format, thanks to the telltale difference in quality and the fact that we were told when to put the 3D glasses on and when to take them off. However, we were shown the clips in a random sequence so that our response wasn't conditioned by the order in which we viewed them.

The whole process took place under lab conditions, with the BDA's PR man, Tom, joining Pocket-lint in taking part in the tests (although, due to his insider knowledge of the tests, his readings weren't included in the final results). Before we started, the team took our base readings (while watching a blank screen) to measure all the data against. All of the video clips were viewed on a Sony 3D TV using active shutter glasses.

Unsurprisingly, Mindlab carries out a great deal of its research for advertising and marketing companies who want to find out if their efforts are actually any good at producing certain responses to their ads and marketing material. In effect, it enables the company to ask people if they like an advert, without actually asking them. The rationale behind this method its that it's likely to be far more honest than a calculated verbal response.

Gaining an insight into the effects of advertising seems like the natural fit for Mindlab's research, but the company also works in various other sectors such as politics, and recently published a study that was used to find out what kind of music people really liked. Despite the test subjects claiming that certain cool and sophisticated tracks were their favourites, it was embarrasingly middle-of-the-road music, such as "Take That" and "Abba" that actually got their pulses racing.

It's this kind of objective response that, in theory, makes this method ideal for testing responses to 3D, in comparison to 2D Blu-ray and DVD. As well as suggesting that people are more attentive and engaged while watching 3D, the study also found that the test group had a significantly more emotional response (8 per cent more) when watching Blu-ray 3D compared to DVD. Obviously this is a tricky one to quantify, as although physiological signs of emotion can be measured and recorded, it's debatable whether this is the same as a truly emotional response (although we were certainly close to tears by the time we'd watched a scene from the laughably poor "Step-Up" for the third time).

The same applies to the other aspects of Mindlab's tests, where levels of attention and engagement were measured. Although the body may show physical signs that imply that it's giving more attention to one thing over another, it doesn't necessarily mean that this attention equates to enjoyment. So, although it seems fair to suggest that physiological responses can give us an idea of someone's actual response, it's unlikely to be a direct translation.

It could also be argued that the data would hold more weight if the number of participants was higher, as 24 seems like quite a low sample for a study of this kind, although that's not to say that the results were insignificant. Obviously the fact that the study was commissioned by the BDA means that the association will have been hoping for a certain result (that 3D is better than 2D and that Blu-ray is better than DVD). However, Mindlab is an independent testing house so the results obtained should be objective and it's not exactly heresy to suggest that watching 3D is more involved than watching a lower quality DVD - it's just common sense really. Although there are undoubtedly a fair few 3D refuseniks that would disagree.

Mindlab's Duncan Smith summed up the results:

"This study has shown how format change affects the viewer on both a conscious and a subconscious level. The sharper contrast of the Blu-ray formats allows the brain to process more of what is being seen as less effort is needed to focus on certain objects.

"3D is a fully immsersive format, increasing engagement in viewers. The fact that subjects were witnessed as having increased eye movement and head movement is testament to this. The 3D technology draws attention to peripheral images on the screen and, coupled with Blu-ray quality definition, it is able to deliver footage that increases engagement and emotional response over all the formats".

The result from the experiment also coincides with figures from Futuresource Consulting showing that 45million Blu-ray Discs were sold in Europe in 2010 - virtually double the figure from the previous year, with the UK accounting for nearly 30 per cent of sales.

Like most non-traditional research methods, the kind of testing carried out by Mindlab has its skeptics, those that believe that this kind of insight into the consumer mind is akin to brain washing and, of course, people who just see it as all just a load of nonsense. Whatever the case, it's certainly wise to question the methods used by any researchers, although we can confirm that we weren't brainwashed. Well, we don't think we were anyway.

Are you a 3D fan? Or is the third dimension not for you?