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How Do 3D Glasses Work?

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Stereoscopy—the illusion of depth created by showing a separate image to each eye—is at least as old as photography itself. In the last few years, however, stereoscopic 3D movies have come back in a big way. Theaters show you 3D movies by projecting two images on one screen and giving you specialized glasses that separate the images. But how do those glasses work?

Polar Opposites

There are several competing 3D technologies, but the most prevalent one in theaters today is based on polarized light. The technology that fueled the 1950s 3D boom, which is still in use today, is linearly polarized stereoscopy. Two images are projected through polarizers of two different orientations, typically 45 and 135 degrees relative to the horizon. The projected images are then filtered using polarizer films in the lenses of your glasses en route to your eyes. In this way, one image is excluded from your left eye while the other image is excluded from your right.

In the original formulation of this system, two projectors were used, and projectionists needed to take great care to make sure the two images were well aligned, perfectly synchronized, and equally bright. This problem has been eliminated with the rise of digital projectors. One of the other major problems, though, is inherent to the linearly polarized system: It requires the glasses to be parallel to the projector screen in order to prevent the images from leaking through their respective 'dark' lenses. This means that if you bend down to grab the popcorn, or turn to whisper to your friend, or if you sit off to the side of the theater instead of in the center, then the 3D effect will be compromised and you may get a bit of a headache.

The latter problem is corrected with circularly polarized 3D, patented in 1989. This is the method used by the RealD system, the most widely used system in theaters today. Here, one of the images is projected using light waves that trace out a left-handed spiral, and the other using light that traces out a right-handed spiral. Each lens contains a quarter wave plate, which is a passive device that transforms the two counterspiraling waves into two perpendicular linear waves. Then the familiar linear polarizers cut out one image from your left eye and the other image from your right.

So how do you know what kind of 3D glasses you're wearing? Slip into the bathroom during the movie and look in the mirror with one eye closed. The handedness of circularly polarized light is reversed when it reflects off a mirror, but the orientation of linearly polarized light is preserved. So, if the lens in front of your open eye is blacked out, then you are wearing circularly polarized glasses. If the lens in front of your closed eye is blacked out, then you are wearing linearly polarized glasses (or possibly active shutter 3D glasses—a topic for another post).

Andrew Koltonow is a graduate student in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University. He's part of our College Weekend extravaganza.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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