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3DTV in your face

You can't get away from it. 2010 has been billed as being the year of 3D. This certainly seems to continue to be the case at the CES show in Las Vegas this week with lots of blog posts about 3DTV already popping up. Obviously there have been many more 3D films in the cinema recently, in particular the major blockbuster Avatar, and consumers are eager to get this technology into their living room.

But what exactly are we talking about when we say 3D? It’s not to be confused with computer generated models such as in the original Toy Story animation. These are often referred to as 3D models or CGI, but when you view them on a screen you still see a flat image, because it’s a flat screen. Both of your eyes are seeing the same image and therefore there is no difference in depth. What we are talking about now is officially known as Stereoscopic 3D.

Stereoscopics, or Stereo 3D, has been around for many many years, starting with people creating stereo 3D photographs taken with two cameras a few inches apart and then placing the photos in a special viewer box like binoculars which forces each eye to look at it’s respective photo. The brain does the rest. Things have moved on from there though and we now have about 4 main viewing styles. A quick synopsis…

Anaglyph glasses (red and blue)
Glasses_anaglyph This is what many people still think of when they think of 3D video. Not really very impressive and a bit cheap. Channel 4 in the UK got people excited when they announced a 3D week on their channel recently, only for people to then discover it was just going to be with those annoying red/blue images again. This technology has been around for a while and was very popular in the 50s and 60s. Cheap glasses but you lose a lot of the colour information of the image. This is only used on current monitors as it is the only method most of them can handle.

Polarised glasses (passive viewing)
Glasses_polarised This is what you get when you go to the cinema these days. Two projectors project an image each onto the screen but the light from each is polarised in a different way. The glasses are lightweight and inexpensive. Each lens blocks out one of the polarised lightwaves and therefore each eye gets the correct image. One slight drawback with this method is that the image is in essence 'interlaced' which means that each eye only gets half the number of lines in the image. HD will not be ‘full’ HD therefore. The quality difference, however, is negligible.    

Shutter glasses (active viewing)
Glasses_shutter This method has no quality loss at all. Each eye’s full res image is played alternately at very quick succession. The glasses, however, are bulkier and more expensive as they need to synchronise with the projector/monitor so that it blocks off each eye at the same rate as the images are being displayed. This method can be used with current monitors that have a high enough refresh rate of 120hz (only a small number of expensive computer monitors). A synch unit is also required to make them work.

No glasses (autostereoscopic / lenticular)
This is the latest breakthrough technology and there are already a few models available which use tiny lenses on the monitor itself to split the image before it hits your eyes. It’s very complicated to make and in terms of viewing it’s great not having to wear glasses but you do have to be in a sweet spot to view it correctly and not move too much. This is definitely the future though and as the technology improves and the price comes down I think we’ll see these models become mainstream within 5 years.

  • I have used anaglyph since I was a young child and never really been that impressed with it
  • I made stereo 3D videos and computer game levels with the shutter glasses at University about 9 years ago and while it was good quality I still found the glasses gave me headaches. There was also often hardware issues with the glasses not synching up correctly
  • I recently went to Inition in London and received a demo of the Autostereoscopic lenticular method which I had never seen before. It is a very strange sensation to see 3D images without wearing glasses
  • The polarised glasses are great and don’t induce nausea. For me these are the winners right now

So how do I view 3D?
If you have a great computer monitor and are happy installing new software and drivers then you can use something like Nvidia’s GeForce 3D Stereo kit. Otherwise, and if you want to view it in the luxury of your living room the bottom line is that you will have to buy a new TV.

A new TV?
Yes. I’m afraid so. You probably just bought a new HDTV too didn’t you? The good news is that after CES there should be a larger number of manufacturers bringing out 3DTVs so hopefully a price war might begin. Further good news is that existing set top boxes (such as the Sky+HD box) will be able to handle the 3D signal. Playstation3s will also be able to show them after downloading a firmware update. TV manufacturers are, however, split over which technology to go with. Some are launching shutter glasses systems while others favour the polarised glasses. The good news is that content which is produced in 3D will be compatible with all the hardware.

But is there any content to watch?
Not a huge amount yet but there has been some great news recently about organisations working on new content. Sky in Europe will be launching a 3D channel this year, primarily filming live events in 3D such as sport and concerts. ESPN has followed suit by announcing their 3D plans. The big news at CES yesterday was that IMAX will be linking up with Sony and Discovery to produce 3D content later this year.

Will everything be produced in 3D?
This is debatable. My recent review of Avatar highlighted how action movies maybe aren’t the best exponents of the 3D technique. The fast cuts and changes in camera angles don’t go well with 3D as the brain can struggle to keep working out the new depths on screen. Better content is things like sport, live events and science documentaries. This also seems to be the way things are going with the recent Sky, ESPN and IMAX/Discovery announcements.

Will it become mainstream?
Everywhere we look just now we are seeing 3D. YouTube has also just recently launched a 3D element to its videos. As I said above I don’t think every form of video is suited to 3D. Others are perfectly suited. As directors and producers gain more experience in what shooting styles work, we should see a better and more focussed range of content.

What will be the killer use?
For me the killer app will be games. When you interact with a 3D image it makes it much more ‘believeable’ as your brain almost moves with it. It works. You control it as it moves and you feel a part of it. You also control the speed of the movement which is crucial. This will also link in with the recent swathe of Augmented Reality apps we are seeing and incredible games such as EyePet.

What’s next?
Viewing without glasses is the next big thing for 3DTVs but in terms of the user experience watch out for head-tracking and haptic interfaces. They let you move round an object and get a new perspective on it as well as touching it with force feedback. Industry and Medicine will lead the way with this but it’s only a matter of time until we see that in our living rooms too.




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