3D has been a buzzword in the technology industry for years. Ever since Avatar brought 3D cinema back into the public eye in 2009, there's been a resurgence of interest in 3D technologies.

Now we're surrounded by 3D TVs (with and without glasses), 3D computer monitors, 3D videogames, portable 3D games consoles like the Nintendo 3DS, 3D Blu-rays, 3D web streaming and even 3D sound. It seems like most of the major electronics companies are jumping on the 3D bandwagon, but why?

3D is nothing new; in fact, the first patent for stereoscopic 3D movies (where two images are combined to fool the eye into seeing footage in three dimensions) dates back to 1894. Since then, there's been a cycle every 10-15 years where 3D is hawked as the next big thing, people flock to cinemas to experience it and then it quietly fades away until the next generation rediscovers it.

What makes 3D entertainment so attractive to us? Why do we strive to replace our 2D displays with ones that fool us into seeing that extra dimension, and what will happen when we finally do?

To understand 3D's attraction, we spoke to Joanna Bawa, a chartered psychologist with a special interest in technology. She feels it's something inherent in the way we view the world.

"3D is appealing because it's more like reality than 2D," she says. "We can choose to engage with 2D entertainment by making a decision, in effect, suspending our disbelief. With 3D, the choice is far less conscious because 3D engages us whether we like it or not by triggering unconscious responses, which are more closely connected with our emotional selves."

Viewer involvement

Samsung, which is investing heavily in 3D tech, agrees. "Viewers want to feel involved in what they're watching, and immersed in the environments portrayed on screen," a company spokesman told us. "3D is the most important evolution in visual technology for decades."

But we've been here before. In the '80s, viewers were thrilled by films like Jaws 3-D and Amityville 3-D, but the technology was mothballed almost as soon as it appeared. Is 3D just a fad - an attractive novelty rather than something genuinely useful?

"3D isn't a fad," Bawa explains. "It's an aspiration we're some way off achieving, but which continues to drive us. The closer we get to 3D, the less visible the seam between technology and the real world, and the more immersive the experience. So, while it's true that we're attracted to novelty, in a way 3D is more traditional because it more accurately reflects our every day experience of interacting with the world. That doesn't mean 3D is good for everything, though!"

On the bandwagon

You wouldn't believe it looking at the vast range of products now bearing the 3D label, one of the latest examples of which is 3D web streaming.

"To expand the 3D TV market, we have launched a free 3D video on demand (VoD) service to the UK," Samsung told us. "The service is available on Samsung Smart TVs, and lets users access 20 free 3D videos on demand. But this is just the start - by the end of the year we will be offering up to 70 free 3D VoDs and believe that in years to come, [people in] every living room will be able to access 3D content at their convenience."

With new applications for 3D popping up all the time, and even ways to view 3D without glasses like head-tracking or lenticular screens, are we about to crack 3D? It's already lasted longer than in previous iterations, so what does Bawa think the main impact of 3D will be if we finally succeed?

"It depends in what sphere," she says. "In entertainment, especially movies and games, participants will become far more immersed in their 3D world. This will be enriching in many ways, but may well impact adversely on our 'real world' skills. For example, there is already some evidence that extensive game playing is leading to an increase in the accident and death rate in young men because of their reduced ability to judge risk in the real world, and their reduced awareness of real world consequences. More and better 3D will blur the boundaries between real and not-real in ways which we cannot fully anticipate," she says.

"In movies, the experience is more personal and more immediate because objects appear to enter an individual's personal space - which can be scary, funny or thrilling. At the moment, although we respond emotionally to this, we still know 'it's just a movie', but the younger the participant the less clear that distinction.

"In a technical sense, 3D is better than 2D for visualising solid objects. Product design, remote surgery, layout of stores and molecular science are all examples where 3D has clear benefits."

So seeing in 3D really does provide a different emotional impact compared to 2D?

"Yes," Bawa says. "Some of our most important perceptual skills are based on survival and have evolved over many millennia, which means they bypass our conscious brain and operate at a much faster, subconscious level. Objects and movements we cannot perceive consciously have an emotional impact (such as fear or arousal), which allows us to respond before we know that we need to.

"Emotions are therefore experiences in a less predictable but more intense way, which is rarely achieved in 2D. Of course, this only applies where emotion is involved - 3D modelling of molecules or products has no emotional dimension but provides a better fit to the experience of working with a real object."

So what does she think would be the most exciting use for 3D?

"That depends on what you regard as exciting! Video conferencing, space flight, education, combat training, virtual tourism, communication and geo-exploration are all markets ripe for 3D. Real life is 3D, so there are few areas where good 3D technology wouldn't have a role. But let's take a guess. The usual market leader in these immersive, interactive technologies is the porn industry, and given that sex remains one of our most powerful drivers and most intense emotional experiences, it's the area where the brain is probably most willing to be tricked.

"But while that sounds exciting, it will bring a huge raft of problems too, if the issue of two-dimensional porn addiction is anything to go by. 3D is hugely powerful, and like all powerful technologies, it brings solutions and problems we never imagined."

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First published in PC Plus Issue 310

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