Probing Explorations, Deep Displays, Virtual Reality, and Profound Insights: the Four Faces of Stereographic Three-Dimensional Images in Marketing and Consumer Research

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University
Takeo Kuwahara, Keio University
ABSTRACT - Stereographic three-dimensional images can greatly enhance the vividness, clarity, realism, and depth of visual displaysCthereby improving our ability to visualize information in ways that may play an important role in marketing and consumer research and that therefore deserve our consideration. Toward this end, we begin with a brief review of the major approaches to presenting stereo 3-D images. We then indicate how such stereographic displays can enhance vividness, clarity, realism, and depth in analyzing data (Aprobing explorations@), in communicating findings (Adeep displays@), in addressing consumers (Avirtual reality@), and in enriching our understanding of consumption phenomena (Aprofound insights@).
[ to cite ]:
Morris B. Holbrook and Takeo Kuwahara (1999) ,"Probing Explorations, Deep Displays, Virtual Reality, and Profound Insights: the Four Faces of Stereographic Three-Dimensional Images in Marketing and Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 240-250.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 240-250


Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

Takeo Kuwahara, Keio University

[Color and anaglyph versions of this paper as well as the ACR presentation on which it is based can be found at The first author gratefully acknowledges the support of the Columbia Business School's Faculty Research Fund.]


Stereographic three-dimensional images can greatly enhance the vividness, clarity, realism, and depth of visual displaysCthereby improving our ability to visualize information in ways that may play an important role in marketing and consumer research and that therefore deserve our consideration. Toward this end, we begin with a brief review of the major approaches to presenting stereo 3-D images. We then indicate how such stereographic displays can enhance vividness, clarity, realism, and depth in analyzing data ("probing explorations"), in communicating findings ("deep displays"), in addressing consumers ("virtual reality"), and in enriching our understanding of consumption phenomena ("profound insights").


Commonly used techniques in the methodological tool kits of marketing and consumer researchers entail the use of visual displays to explore our data, to communicate various aspects of our work to interestedaudiences, to address consumers, or to enlighten ourselves via personal epiphanies and private discoveries. In short, we rely on the visualization of information to explore the nature of multivariate relationships; to display our findings; to portray consumption experiences realistically; and to express our own thoughts or feelings while also facilitating insights into the problems we study. Obviously, we want these explorations, displays, realities, and insights to be as probing, deep, virtual, and profound as possible. In other words, we value any approach that can improve our ability to visualize information in any of the four ways just mentioned. Stereographic three-dimensional images do precisely that. Specifically, they enhance the vividness, clarity, realism, and depth of our visual representations in ways that contribute greatly to the research enterprise.

Recently, increased attention has focused on the potential uses for three-dimensional stereography in marketing and consumer research (Holbrook 1996c, 1997c, 1997d, 1998c, 1998e, 1998f; Kuwahara 1998). General overviewsCincluding full-color versions of this paper as well as the ACR presentation on which it is basedCappear at These sources provide detailed treatments of the topics reviewed here, plentiful examples of the relevant techniques, applications to specific areas of interest, links to related Web sites, and extensive bibliographical references for anyone wishing to explore stereo 3-D imagery in greater ... depth. In the present paper, we shall sketch the broad outlines of this research program and shall provide some illustrations that we hope will motivate the reader to look further into the three-dimensional world of stereography. Toward this end, we shall begin with a brief review of the major approaches to presenting stereo 3-D images. We shall then indicate how such stereographic displays can enhance vividness, clarity, realism, and depth in analyzing data ("probing explorations"), communicating findings ("deep displays"), addressing consumers ("virtual reality"), and enriching our understanding of consumption phenomena ("profound insights").


Recent reviews describe eight major types of stereographic three-dimensional displays of use in marketing or consumer research and provide illustrations in the form of stereo pairs that may also be experienced as red-and-blue/green 3-D anaglyphs (Holbrook 1997c, 1997d; also,

Key Dimensions Or Distinctions

This typology covers the logical possibilities for different ways of presenting stereo 3-D images and results from combining three key dimensions or distinctions, as follows.

(1) Two- Versus One-Image Presentations. (a) On the one hand, the 3-D image may appear as a side-by-side stereo pair, each member of which contains the visual information appropriate for the left/right eye (parallel viewing) or for the right/left eye (cross-eyed viewing). (b) On the other hand, the stereo picture may combine both the left- and right-eyed perspectives into a single presentation or autostereogram.

(2) Free-Viewing Versus Aided Viewing. (a) Some 3-D images may be viewed with the naked eyes without the help of any special optical device. (b) Other stereo representations benefit from some sort of gadget that directs each image to its appropriate eye.

(3) Camera Versus Computer. (a) Some approaches for capturing or creating 3-D images employ one or more cameras, lenses, and/or light-sensitive films. (b) Other approaches use computer-generated or even hand-drawn images.

The Typology

Combining the three key dimensions or distinctions produces the typology shown in Table 1. The types of stereo 3-D displays represented by this typology are described and illustrated by Holbrook (1997c, 1997d). Here, the important point to notice is that numerous alternative approaches exist for presenting stereographic three-dimensional displays. These stereo 3-D techniques include side-by-side photographs (STEREO PHOTO PAIRS), computer-generated constructions (ROTATED PLOTS, DOUBLE PROJECTIONS, RANDOM DOT STEREOGRAMS or RDS), stereoviews intended for various optical devices (STEREOSCOPES, STEREOVIEWERS, PRISMATIC LORGNETTES), double presentations suitable for head-mounted LED, LCD, CRT, or TV displays (VIRTUAL REALITY or VR), specially processed left/right pictures combined into one image (LENTICULAR PRINTS, HOLOGRAMS), moving computer-generated displays (MOTION PARALLAX), repeating pattern autostereograms (SINGLE-IMAGE RANDOM DOT STEREOGRAMS or SIRDS), superimposed red-and-blue/green pictures intended for viewing with color-filtering red-blue/green glasses (ANAGLYPHS), movie-screen projections that require special viewing aids (POLARIZATION, SHUTTER GLASSES), and advanced applications making use of sophisticated time-sequenced computer imaging (STEREO COMPUTER GRAPHICS). All these approaches deserve consideration by those wishing to use stereography to produce 3-D images in marketing or consumer research. However, to keep the present discussion within reasonable bounds, we shall focus on those techniques that (1) are inexpensive enough to lend themselves to virtually any research application and (2) permit presentation via our most common mediaCnamely, the printed page, the lecture hall, and the television screen or computer monitor. Specifically, we shall focus on two major types of 3-D imagesCstereo pairs and anaglyphs.



Selected Illustrative Approaches: Stereo Pairs and Anaglyphs

(1) Stereo pairs fill the left-hand column of Table 1. In essence, they present side-by-side pictures captured by a camera or generated by a computer and may be experienced by either free-viewing or aided viewing.

(a) In free-viewing, the reader should begin by placing the stereo pair close to the face and gazing past the two pictures by looking straight ahead with both the right and left eyes. Then pull the face slowly away from the display while continuing to gaze straight ahead. The two pictures should float together and fuse into one central 3-D image. This viewing approach requires practice but can be mastered by pursuing the tutorials found at the aforementioned Web Site.

(b) Aided viewing of stereo pairs relies on some optical device to help the eyes fuse the side-by-side pictures into one 3-D image. Our favorite optical device for the aided viewing of stereo pairsCthe prismatic lorgnette produced by Added DimensionCmay be ordered for five dollars (including postage) from Reel 3-D Enterprises (P.O. Box 2368, Culver City, CA 90231, 310-837-2368) or Cygnus Graphic (P.O. Box 32461, Phoenix, AZ 85064, 602-277-9253).

(2) Anaglyphs are constructed by converting the left member of a stereo pair to a blue-green image, converting the right member to a red image, and then combining the blue-green and red images into one red-and-blue/green visual display using software such as Adobe Photoshop 4.0. One views this display through red (left) and blue/green (right) glasses that screen out the like-colored material and select the complementary-colored material so that the appropriate content and only that content reaches each eye to produce a persuasive black-and-white 3-D effect. Suitable red-blue glasses may be obtained by sending a dollar and a stamped self-addressed envelope to Reel 3-D or Cygnus Graphic (listed previously).


The first use for stereo 3-D displays that we wish to illustrate arises in the analysis of data. As numerous commentators have emphasized (e.g., Jacoby 1997), the plotting of data may contribute greatly to a researcher’s ability to detect underlying functional relationshipsCespecially moderating effects that might not emerge so clearly from a routine statistical analysis. Such aids to data exploration benefit further from the enhanced vividness, clarity, realism, and depth offered by stereography (Holbrook 1997d, 1998e).

As one example, consider the data on reader evaluations of supermarket chains recently recorded by Consumer Reports (1997). Specifically, CR readers rated 35 supermarkets on Cleanliness, Price Bargains, and an Overall Score for Excellence. Our preliminary analysis of these data suggested a model that explains the overall Score (R2=0.83, p<0.0001) as a linear function of Cleanliness (t=12.5, p<0.0001) and Price Bargains (t=2.2, p=0.04). Further clarification appears, however, in the scatterplot shown in Figure 1. Here, Score increases from bottom to top, Prices vary from left (poorest bargains) to right (best bargains), and Cleanliness is trichotomized into three levels from low (front) to medium (middle) to high (back). In a monocular view of either picture shown in Figure 1 considered by itself (the normal way of observing such a data display), the relevant pattern remains quite unclear. By contrast, when seen stereoptically, the scatterplot vividly shows three contrasting relationships of Score to Prices at the three levels of Cleanliness. Specifically, at low Cleanliness, rScore,Prices=0.95; at medium Cleanliness, rScore, Prices=0.24; and at high Cleanliness, rScore, Prices=0.27. Despite the small sample size, this interaction of low/other Prices with Cleanliness is significant at p=0.06. Substantively, these results mean that if a supermarket’s perceived cleanliness is low, that store or chain has much to gain in overall evaluation by offering price bargains (r=0.95, p<0.001); by contrast, at higher levels of perceived cleanliness, the sensitivity of overall evaluation to price bargains disappears (r=-0.17, n.s.). Thus, the moderating impact of Cleanliness on Price effects fails to emerge in a conventional 2-D XYZ scatterplot but appears with vivid clarity in the stereo 3-D representation.


Once one has discovered the shape of some interesting functional relationship or some other finding, one encounters the problem of conveying the nature of this result to an audience of managers or other interested readers. Again, the use of three-dimensional stereography may facilitate the visualization of information (Holbrook 1997c, 1998e, 1998f). Consider, for example, the hypothetical preference data represented in Figure 2. This figure shows a bar chart in which each bar reflects consumer preferences toward a combination of Attribute X (measured from left to right) with Attribute Y (measured from back to front). When seen monocularly in a two-dimensional view, the bar chart communicates rather ineffectively concerning the relative preferences for different attribute combinations, the shape of the overall preference surface, or the location of the ideal point. By contrast, when seen stereoptically in three dimensions, the shape of the preference surface appears clearlyCas does the location of the most-preferred combination of attributes at X=6 and Y=5.


As used here, the term virtual reality refers loosely to our ability to present marketing-related materials effectively to consumers and also our ability to capture the visual aspects of consumption experiences engaged in by consumers.

Presenting To Consumers

One convenient outline for applications of stereography in the case of marketing appeals presented to consumers simply follows the familiar "4 P’s" of Marketing StrategyCproduct, price, place, and promotion (Holbrook 1997d, 1998e).

Product Design. This illustration shows the manner in which stereographic displays of the type that might be generated by three-dimensional computer-assisted design or 3-D CAD applications can assist the visualization of the aesthetic aspects of product design. Figure 3 presents a simulated rendering of the sort of output one might obtain from a 3-D CAD approach to designing a racing car. On the top, we see the wire-frame model. On the bottom, we find the same model after the application of surface textures. Notice how the details in the former and the aesthetic aspects in the latter emerge with greater vividness, clarity, and realism when viewed in depth via the 3-D experience.

Pricing. As shown here, stereo 3-D effects could also be used to dramatize price discounts or other special deals more effectively. Here, the problem is to attract the shopper’s attention with some sort of display that catches the eye. Three-dimensional lettering of the type shown in Figure 4 seems well suited to promoting such an attraction.

Place. One clear application of stereo 3-D displays arises in the sort of shopping simulations developed by Burke (1996). Burke’s key claim is that the enhanced realism of the virtual store helps to improve the validity of research results based on such simulated shopping tasks. But though they are already quite compelling in Burke’s 2.5-D versions (that is, in good visual perspective but without true 3-D depth), the realism in these simulations of the retail environment could be enhanced even further by means of stereography. Figure 5 presents a hypothetical version of what Burke’s virtual shopping environment would look like in true stereographic depth. To appreciate the impact of this refinement on the realism of the simulated store, compare the flat view seen in either member of the stereo pair by itself with the 3-D experience attained by fusing the pair stereoptically.

Promotional Communication. Advertising could also achieve greater impact if presented three-dimensionally. The example shown in Figure 6 results from modifying images contained in a recent television commercial for McDonald’s. In this TV ad, the camera tracks from right to left while filming two gigantic hamburgers. This right-to-left motion of the camera supplied the two members of the stereo pair. Notice how the resulting 3-D picture appears far more juicy, succulent, delicious, and otherwise tempting than does the monocular 2-D view.

Consumption By Consumers

In recent years, marketing or consumer researchers and other social scientists have increasingly used photography to capture, document, or represent various aspects of the consumption experience (Holbrook 1998c). Hence, it seems reasonable to argue that any approach capable of enhancing the vividness, clarity, realism, and depth of such photographic visual displays should be viewed as a boon to the relevant research applications. Specifically, besides the benefits already claimed in the preceding sections, we contend that three-dimensional stereography offers an approach that can enhance the meaningfulness of our photos in ways that might enrich our documentation of ethnographic results (Holbrook 1997b; Holbrook and Kuwahara 1998; Kuwahara 1998) or of mock-ethnographic materials (Holbrook 1998d); that might facilitate the self-expression of subjective personal introspections (Holbrook 1996a, 1996b, 1996c); and that might even help to push consumer research to the edge of its boundaries (Holbrook 1997a, 1997e, 1998a, 1998f). Some of this work uses stereo 3-D photos in ways that shed lght on specific aspects of consumer behavior (Holbrook 1997d). In this, stereography helps to deepen our insights into the visual world of consumers by enriching our ability to understand pictorial displays of consumption experiences. A key question, of course, concerns the issue of how and why this happens.

In capturing key aspects of consumption experiences engaged in by consumers, one could think of stereo 3-D displays as helping to break camouflage caused by confusion, clutter, crowding, or complexity (Holbrook 1997d, 1998b, 1998c, 1998f). This latter theme provides the main focus for the present discussion in which we shall try to demonstrate the bases for such visual enhancement by means of some artificial examples. The abstract nature of these illustrations was purposely chosen as a way of avoiding the potentially distracting substantive issues that real-life stereo 3-D photographs usually raise.

Confusion occurs when objects seem to disappear into their backgrounds because of similarity in patterns, colors, or both. The illustration in Figure 7 shows a zebra positioned against a background of stripes. In a 2-D or one-eyed view, the zebra is difficult to detect. Note how, when seen stereoptically, the animal appears to float free and stands out clearly against the background. A similar phenomenon found in everyday experience improves our ability to recognize an individual creature when watching it in its natural habitatCsay, a rabbit in the snow or a chameleon on a leaf. Doubtless such an ability conveys survival value, which may help explain the feeling of pleasure we get from putting our stereoptical capacity to effective use.

Clutter refers to an image that contains so many objects that they tend to lose their individual identities as separate items. For example, constructed from a large library of automotive clipart, Figure 8 presents a meaningless jumble of old cars until one sorts them out with the help of stereopsis. Seen stereoptically, each vehicle seems to detach itself from its neighbors and to emerge as a separate and distinct entity.

Crowding appearsCas a sort of combination of confusion and clutterCwhen many similar items are juxtaposed in the same picture. In other words, they are jammed together with other objects of like appearance, thereby making their recognition as distinct entities doubly difficult. Common examples would include herds of animals, groups of people, or arrays of consumer products on shelves. Our illustration simulates what we call the 101 Dalmatians Effect. Specifically, the collection of clipart dogs in Figure 9 presents a meaningless crowd of canine bodies until one penetrates the space and sorts them out with the help of the 3-D experience. Notice how each dalmatian regains its own individual identity when seen stereoptically.

Complexity designates the multi-leveled interplay of spatial relationships that might characterize a picture containing (say) reflections (as in mirrors or on water); objects located at unusual positions vis-a-vis the camera (as in foreshortening); or one object seen through another (as in a glass display case). The window of a retail store presents a common real-life example from the world of consumption experiences. Figure 10 illustrates the point in the abstract by means of a drawing that represents three layers of depth. Seen monocularly, the contours of the three layers cannot be deciphered. By contrast, in binocular vision, the 3-D effect permits us to look through the front layer(s) to see the layer(s) behind.


In a sense, a final and more figurative aspect of stereography may encapsulate its greatest potential meaning for marketing and consumer researchers. Here, we refer to the significance of stereopsis as a metaphor for the nature of our insights into the lives of consumers (Holbrook 1996a).

Literature eviewed elsewhere (Holbrook 1997a, 1998a) suggests that creativity in general and innovative insights in particular often and perhaps always depend on the combination of disjunct ideas, the integration of divergent viewpoints, the reconciliation of opposites, the resolution of tensions, or the synthesis of thesis and antithesis. In a similar manner, stereopsis entails a process wherein the fusion of different perspectivesCthat is, the brain’s ability to merge the binocularly disparate left- and right-eyed views into one three-dimensional impressionCaccounts for an enhanced perception of depth. Figuratively, this suggests that seeing the consumer in the most profound depth must involve the combination, integration, reconciliation, resolution, or synthesis of different perspectives. Rather than arguing about whether consumption is rational or emotional, whether methods should be neopositivistic or interpretive, and whether we should aim for pure knowledge or managerial applications, perhaps we should focus more effort toward fusing these alternative views into one more profound understanding of the consumption experience in all its many ramifications (Holbrook 1996a, 1997a, 1998a, 1998f).

One might refer to this sort of vision as walking on the edge (Holbrook 1997e)Ca metaphor that we find much more powerful than the rather trite idea of "breaking out of the box." As seen in the stereo photo shown in Figure 11, walking on the edge is what we instinctively do when we go to the beach and choose our path along the fringes of the receding waves. On one side, the sand is too dry and deep to provide a sure footing. On the other side, the sand is too wet and soggy to negotiate easily. But in betweenCon the edgeCthe path is just damp and solid enough to make our footsteps firmest and most secure.

In the same wayCintellectuallyCwe find our most secure path at the margins of our conceptualizations, on the borders of our thinking, along the boundaries of our perspectives where alternative views collide and, if we are lucky, combine with enhanced vividness, clarity, realism, and depth into more profound insights than we would otherwise have any hope of attaining. One illustration to dramatize the force of this point concerns the decision-oriented view of the consumer, the experiential view, and the desirability of combining these competing perspectives into a deeper appreciation of the partly rational, partly emotional nature of consumption. Such ideas deserve development, we believe, as a core route to new discoveries in our discipline. But at the moment, our main concern hinges on the appropriateness of the metaphor drawn from the nature of stereographic three-dimensional displays.

Briefly, in this connection, we would argue that the phenomenon of walking on the edge seems so evocative becauseCfigurativelyCit reflects the essence of creativity, the principle of successful innovation, and the basis for profound insights (Holbrook 1998a). And the stereo 3-D experience seems so powerful, in part, becauseCmetaphoricallyCit reproduces the central mechanism involved in walking on the edge (Holbrook 1997e, 1998f). Perhaps this is why we remain so endlessly fascinated by experiences that occur along the margins, on the borders, at the frontier (Holbrook 1997a).

All this appears in a final exampleCone based on a celebrated case of stereo 3-D at the frontier and one that we all shared vicariously during the summer of 1997. We refer to the Mars Pathfinder Mission and to the presence of a stereographic camera on the Sojourner Rover that crawled around the surface of Mars to send back three-dimensional pictures of this remote planet. Significantly, NASA believed it worthwhile to collect the enhanced information available from stereo photography ( As shown in Figure 12, in a stereo 3-D view, Mars looks a lot like Arizona without the cactuses (a nice place to visit, but ...).


This paper has introduced and reviewed the benefits of stereographic three-dimensional displays in marketing and consumer research. As indicated, we believe that stereo 3-D images can contribute greatly to our work in analyzing data, communicating results, shaping or reflecting consumption experiences, and conceptualizing the nature of these and other tasks. Through the enhancement of vividness, clarity, realism, and depth, the power of stereoptical representations can help to lead marketing and consumer researchers toward more probing explorations, into deeper displays, beyond virtual reality, and ever closer to increasingly profound insights.


























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