Past, Present & Future of 3D

“Stereoscopic 3-D is the most exciting evolution in cinema presentation since color and widescreen. The question for film-makers is not ‘why 3-D?’, since the reasons are obvious, at least to audiences, and the negatives have all been removed. The question should be ‘how do I make 3-D a part of my art?’” - James Cameron, Film Director.

3-D movies burst on the scene back in the 1950s. We had these funny paper glasses with red and green cellophane lenses which made things pop out of the screen. Sadly, 3-D didn’t last long. Cinerama tried to re-capture the same feeling without glasses, but the format proved to be too technically challenging for the movie studios and cinemas (three curved screens, three cameras and three projectors all in sync).

Recently, however, 3-D has made a resurgence at the movies with films like Beowulf, Chicken Little, Meet The Robinsons, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Bolt, among others, utilizing new stereoscopic 3-D technology. New polarized glasses have been employed to reduce eye strain. Polarized lenses only allow light waves to the left and right eyes individually, which creates the depth of the 3-D illusion. And, I have to say that these films have been very impressive!

Both the NBA (2007 All Star Game) and the NFL (Chargers/Raiders regular season game) have experimented with 3-D broadcasts (theater or via closed circuit) and both received decent reviews. Fox Sports will broadcast college football’s championship game in 3-D at CES later this week.

A market research firm (Quixel Research) recently found that three-fourths of consumers have seen a 3-D movie with 3-D glasses and nearly 75-percent would recommend a 3-D experience to family and friends.

Here’s a look at the types of 3-D available and the manufacturers behind the technologies.

Stereoscopic 3-D (Glasses-based)
Concurrent with this renewed interest at movie theaters, 3-D has also entered the home thanks to innovative algorithms from Texas Instruments’ DLP technology that allows viewers to watch select films and video games in 3-D with glasses. Texas Instruments released DLP 3-D Technology in early 2007. The DLP 3-D Technology uses an innovative format that allows for the left and right images to be combined into a single frame on displays with 120 Hz refresh rate. This format preserves the horizontal and vertical resolution of the left and right views, and enables superior viewing experiences.

In order to configure the TV to 3-D mode, consumers need to purchase a 3-D Accessory Kit (available for $129 from Samsung). In the case of Samsung, the kit was produced with its partner DDD. The kit contains a pair of LCD shutter glasses, an infrared emitter that connects to the HDTV, and PC software. These special glasses utilize shutters that open and close every 1/60th of a second allowing a 120Hz HDTV to show left eye images at 1/60th a second (or 60Hz) and right eye images at 1/60th of a second (or 60Hz) so that there won’t be any flicker, which causes eye strain. After installing the software to a capable PC, the PC needs to be connected to the HDTV using a DVI to HDMI, or HDMI to HDMI cable (depending upon the consumer’s PC graphics card). Then you need to place the TV in 3-D mode and you’re ready to go.

Besides rear projection DLP TVs (with over 500,000 models sold so far) from Mitsubishi and Samsung (Series 6 and 7 DLP TV), Samsung has also been able to carry 3-D technology to its plasma displays (their Series 4 models). All models are 120Hz 1080p TVs.

While the movie studios like 3-D because they can charge an additional fee, sadly, there’s no true standard for the home. And, without a standard for the home, the studios are reluctant to come out with movies and programming in 3-D. Yes, the DVD version of Journey to the Center of the Earth has a 3-D version on the disc (as well as a 2D version); they also supplied glasses to watch the movie.

Right now, there are a handful of games, e.g. Call to Arms, and some films already encoded in 3-D. For glasses-based systems, it’s really a “chicken and egg” situation, and there are a couple of hurdles to get over in order to get a real toe hold in home theaters. There are about 25 different systems out there with no solidified standard for 3-D in either standard definition DVD or Blu-ray.

A bright spot for potential growth in 3-D programming in the home, however, is expected to be video games. Gamers will adopt very quickly to an enhanced reality with added depth for car racing and shoot’em ups. Gamers want to be immersed in the games, and 3-D will be the portal for them to accomplish it. Initially, PC games will adopt first to 3-D before it arrives on consoles like Xbox360 and PS3. In fact, it might not be till the next incarnation of these systems that will see true 3-D capability. Of course, this does not preclude a 3-D firmware update along with optional glasses.

Auto Stereoscopic 3-D (No Glasses)
It seems that the holy grail of 3-D viewing is to watch films and programs without glasses. For the past several years, Philips, LG, and others has been working on 3-D solutions without glasses, but so far these 3-D displays – I can’t call them TVs – utilizing LCD technology primarily are only for the commercial space and digital signage. While some of them aren’t bad, they’re not terrific either. And, they’re costly as well with prices ranging around $10,000 for a system including a 42-in LCD display.

For the past couple of years, Philips has been offering 3-D displays to the commercial arena in 52-in, 42-in., 22-in., and 8-in. versions. In fact, the company has a dedicated 3-D Solutions subsidiary. Philips has recently shown a 132-in. prototype display in Europe along with a special Blu-ray player that can playback 3-D. Currently, both products are in the demoing stage with no plans to bring them to market in the near future. In its displays, Philips uses Multiview lenticular technology that allows multiple viewers wide freedom of movement without sacrificing 3-D perception. A sheet of transparent lenses is fixed on an LCD screen. This sheet sends different images to each eye, and so a person sees two images. These two images are combined (in our brain), to create a 3-D effect. Because the sheet is transparent, it results in full brightness, full contrast and true color representation

At the CEDIA show in September, Electronic House reported on a company called NewSight-X3-D. Their system does not require glasses either, and though previously limited to viewing from about 20 feet away, it’s reportedly one the best and most realistic of its kind. Currently, it is designed for commercial spaces only. NewSight-X3-D can be experienced in several shopping malls and airports in the U.S and Europe, and is used mainly for advertising with custom design content for these systems. The NewSight/X3-D uses 60-70 inch specially designed Pioneer and Mitsubishi flat screen monitors.

LG, on the other hand, uses a specially-designed 42-in. LCD display with proprietary 3-D software from Parallax that offers 3-D still and 2D, 3-D mixed movie possibilities. The specialized 42-in. 1080p display (at 60Hz) also requires LG’s True3-D player, which comes bundled with the display.

HDMI seems the likely conduit for 3-D signals in the home. The current HDMI version 1.3 spec supports video streams running up to 10 Gbits/s, which is enough to handle left and right eye versions of 1080-progressive video at 60 Hz (requiring no more than 8 Gbits/s). Ultimately, however, 3D-TV proponents want to support 120 Hz rates for each eye for truer high definition and multiple 3-D views (this would mean sets with a 240 Hz refresh rate, and the earliest those models will be available is sometime in 2009).

In the short term, however, the industry needs to define a way for HDMI to carry 3-D information from a device along with metadata in a 3-D video stream. This is the job of a special CEA (Consumer Electronics Association) task group working to update the CEA 861 standard that defines an uncompressed video interface referenced in turn by the HDMI standard. Although, it should be noted that it usually takes about a year or so to upgrade a specification standard. The 861 spec in future could also be the basis of other interconnects including DisplayPort and wireless links.

The Future
At last year’s CES (January 2008), there was a special workshop held on 3-D technology. The conclusion of the panel was that glasses-based 3-D system will become more prevalent in the coming years, but auto stereoscopic systems are still several years (or light years) away from a home theater near you.

The Blu-ray community is experimenting with different schemes to add 3-D to disc titles, but no standard has been finalized. Considering the fact that Blu-ray is still working its way into the mainstream, it’s doubtful one will be in the near future.

For any 3-D system to be successful, it needs the support of content creators such as the major Hollywood Studios, who would put a premium on 3-D content. And, of course, it begs the question that in this economy will home viewers pay a premium on top of already high-priced home video?

Honestly, I don’t mean to be pessimistic about 3-D, but it may be better suited for movie theaters, PC video games, and the occasional sporting event. Then again, there just might be a big announcement at CES 2009.

By Dennis P. Barker, ElectronicHouse