Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Console Post: 3D

The 3DS, from almost all reports, is a spectacular piece of hardware.

Game|Life's Chris Kohler was hands-on with the unit yesterday, and here's the opening to his report:
Nintendo’s new 3DS hardware is, in a word, unbelievable.The company didn’t talk about how its stunning technology works during Tuesday’s brief demo for members of the press. But work it does: Without using special glasses, you can see a deep, rich 3-D display on the top screen of the new Nintendo 3DS portable.

That echoes much of what I saw yesterday, and like I've written before, I still vividly remember seeing a 42" autostereoscopic display at E3 almost a decade ago. It was mind-blowing, and 3D without glasses is clearly the future of 3D.

The 3DS, as far as I can tell, uses parallax barrier technology, and here's a description of how it works:
In Parallax Barrier displays a slitted layer is placed over a standard LCD screen to separate the image into separate light paths for the viewer's right and left eyes... One problem with the technology as a home TV option is that the viewer needs to remain still and central for the effect to work. However, as Oliver points out, "if you know there is only one viewer and they are roughly in front of the display and within a meter, then there are ways to give each eye a different image."

I'm sure that this is belaboring the obvious, but for a 3D effect, each eye has to get a separate image from the display. That means that 3D has a much smaller "sweet spot" than 2D viewing, because to see the images in the optimal position, the viewer must be looking at the display from straight-on (or close to it).

That's why autostereoscopic (without glasses) 3D hasn't taken off yet with larger displays. The glasses that we wear "fix" the viewing angle problem, because they're doing additional processing to separate the on-screen image for each eye. Until we can see 3D without glasses with a viewing angle at least as large as current LCD displays (which themselves have inferior viewing angles to plasma), we won't see home displays with autostereoscopic technology.

I went to Best Buy last Saturday to try out the Samsung and Panasonic 3D displays. Both require powered glasses, and it took over fifteen minutes for the salesman to actually find pairs for us to use.

The Samsung LCD, in brief, sucked. The 3D effect looked sort of pasted-on, very cheesy, and I was completely underwhelmed.

The Panasonic plasma was entirely different. The 3D image popped right off the screen, the colors were spectacular, and I was totally blown away.

The glasses, though, were annoying as hell, and no amount of on-screen magnificence could hide that.

That's sort of a circuitous route (do I take any other?) to this point. Nintendo, traditionally cast as an inferior technology company, is actually using cutting-edge technology for the 3DS. Given that the size of displays using parallax barrier technology is increasing every few months, it's entirely possible that this same tech will eventually be used for 42" autostereoscopic displays, and these displays are going to blow everyone away.

Sony, traditionally cast as a cutting edge technology company, is using 3D technology that has a severely limited lifespan. They're promoting the hell out of it--hell, they're essentially betting the company on it--but it's still 3D with glasses.

If it weren't for Nintendo, very few people would even know that glasses-free 3D exists, but as soon as the 3DS launches, everyone will know it, and I wonder how that will affect the purchase of large 3D displays that require glasses.

It's going to be hard to go back, isn't it?
Sony focused on 3D in the E3 presser, and it's definitely going to draw an audience, but before their heavily-touted 3D displays even reach market, they're old news.

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