Thursday, November 12, 2009

Please Put On Your Special Cardboard Glasses To See This Post Properly

I've been talking about 3-D as the next big leap for displays and gaming consoles for several years now. When I say "3-D", though, I could be talking about any one of several different techologies, so let's talk today about the differences.

There are a ton of 3-D display technologies, both for still and moving pictures, but I'm going to focus today on motion technologies.

The original 3-D technology used in the first wave of 3-D films in the 1950s was anaglyph. This required the classic cardboard glasses with lenses of different colors (red and green, usually) to see the 3-D image.

How is it? Well, not so hot. Yes, there's definitely a 3-D effect, but the glasses really aren't comfortable (and they're difficult to use if you're already wearing glasses, like me), and the viewing sweet spot is fairly small. There's a reason it was originally just a fad--the technology wasn't good enough to be anything more than a novelty.

Want to see an example of anaglyph 3-D? If you've watched Journey To The Center Of The Earth or Coraline in 3-D at home, then you're seeing anaglyph technology.

Today, the new wave of 3-D films use stereoscopic 3-D technology. Instead of wearing cardboard glasses with different-colored lenses, stereoscopic 3-D uses polarized glasses that look like sunglasses. They're much more comfortable, and they also fit easily over existing glasses.

How is the 3-D? Compared to anaglyph, it's night and day. The theater version of Coraline, for example, is stunning--it's the best and most immersive 3-D I've ever seen. The home version, using anaglyph technology, is very disappointing in comparison. For one, the color palette is not identical to the theater version (which is a limitation of existing displays, although a few screens released in the last 12 months no longer have this problem), and there's also the much smaller viewing sweet spot.

It's the same with Journey To The Center Of The Earth, which had quite an excellent 3-D effect in the stereoscopic version. The limited color palette is particularly noticeable in the home version in comparison.

So if you think you're getting the same 3-D effect at home if you wait for a movie to come out on DVD, you're not, unfortunately.

That may change in the future, though. There are now actually a few home displays now that support stereoscopic 3-D--the Hyundai Xpol line--but given that films aren't being released in stereoscopic home versions, it's utility is currently limited.

A third kind of 3-D is called "full parallax 3-D" (also known as "auto-stereoscopic"). This is a technology that doesn't require the wearing of special glasses, and it's if there's a killer tech for 3-D, this is it.

I've seen this once in person, and it was absolutely mind-blowing. Objects seemed to be coming out of the screen, but because I wasn't wearing any special glasses, the suspension of disbelief was overwhelming. Everyone who walked by the display was instantly mesmerized.

So why isn't this incredible technology available for home use? Well, for one, it's very, very complex. Hitachi was showing a 10" display in October at CEATAC, and here's a description of how it works:
The Full Parallax 3D TV is based on a method called "Integral Photography with Overlaid Projection." Specifically, it consists of 16 projectors and a lens array sheet to cover them. The lens array sheet ensures parallax in any direction (not only in the horizontal direction). Because of parallax, the 3D image seen by the user differs in accordance with the angle from which the screen is viewed.

Here's more:
In glasses-free displays of this kind, there's a trade-off between the number of 'viewpoints' and the resolution. Hitachi uses 16 projectors, each of them with 800x600 resolution. Totally there are 7.7 million pixels (like 4000x2000 resolution). The final image is just 640x480, though (because of the number of viewpoints).

Like I said, it's complex, and because it's complex, it's expensive. Large displays at any kind of affordable price are years away. But this is the technology that will eventually make 3-D indispensable.

Oh, and don't think that full parallax displays will be able to display films created using anaglyph technology in 3-D, because they won't. All of these technologies are incompatible, to the best of my knowledge.

That's why it's so important that 3-D standards for Blu-Ray be adopted, and while they've been in process for a while, I don't think anything has been finalized yet (Panasonic and Dolby have both submitted possible standards). And it's not just a software standard that's elusive, because even though several different companies are offering "3-D displays," there's no accepted definition of what that actually means.

It gets even more complicated. There's also a technology for home used called "active shutter" that requires the user to wear powered glasses (the lenses actively synchronize with signals from the display). It's a way to enable stereoscopic 3-D at home, and several vendors (including nVidia and Sony) are heavily promoting it, but again, there are no standards.

There's no question that 3-D is the future, and given how many companies are actively promoting it right now, it's clear that that the entertainment industry agrees. But the lack of standards makes it a murky pool.

One last note: James Cameron's new movie, Avatar, releasing December 18, and it was specifically filmed with 3-D in mind. If this film does as well at the box office as expected, it will be a reasonable test of whether 3-D films for grown-ups are commercially viable.

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