UPDATED: 3D is coming, and it's stunning

Posted by Rick C. Hodgin

Opinion - Richmond (VA) - Anyone taking a step back and looking at the new gadgetry at this year's CES 2009 will be left with one undeniable reality: 3D is coming, and almost here. In fact, the technology is ready ... we just need the infrastructure and content.





In 2008, several companies - from computer graphics to television manufacturers - began working on effective, realistic 3D technology for consumers. Nvidia's recent announcement of their GeForce 3D Vision glasses may mimic older devices, but the accompanying software allows virtually every 3D video game in existence to be immediately rendered in more realistic 3D with alternating right/left eye images, and all without any gaming patches whatsoever. This technology works equally well for 3D images and videos - though they do require appropriate capture from a Wall-E-like twin-input device.



Beyond computers, several 3D television (called 3DTV, like HDTV) were on display at CES with absolutely stunning effects - if reports are to be believed. In fact, in HD form the 3D television samples shown brought a level of depth previously unimaginable to a home entertainment system. And several of these systems are available today. Several reviewers referred to it as "bringing science fiction into scientific reality."


How do they work? And what's coming to enable them?



The physical ability to view 3D images requires that the right and left eye see different pictures. Today, that is only possible from a single device using one of two methods - and both of them require that either contact lenses or glasses be worn.



The first method is called polarization. In a polarized design, an image for the right eye is presented with the polarized light at 90 degrees to the polarized light used for the left eye. The polarized glasses, which are little more than glass or plastic lenses coated with a polarizing layer, which are otherwise completely transparent and free from technology, are worn to filter out the signal for each eye. In this method, both images are shown simultaneously on the display - making the image all but impossible to see without the glasses (due to the bleed-over from each eye's point of view). With the glasses, however, the effects are absolutely stunning - full 3D in your living room which, no matter where you are seated, looks equally amazing - as the polarized coating for each eye blocks out the other eye's image.

Several animated movies coming out from Pixar will use this technique to woo audiences nationwide. Alternating left and right images will be displayed on the movie screen using polarized light. The reusable glasses, obtainable at the movie theatre, will filter out appropriately allowing our favorite computer animated characters to come to life in new ways. Pixar currently has 12 animated movies scheduled, and Disney announced back in April, 2008, that all future Pixar movies would be in 3D.



The other more common method today for 3DTVs and 3D monitors use alternating images at higher "frame rates." Typically, a 60 Hz refresh is used on LCD/TFT displays and TVs. On newer 3D models, a 120 Hz refresh is used with a right-eye image appearing 60 times per second, along with a left-eye image appearing 60 times per second. This maintains the 60 Hz cycle, but each eye sees each image for 1/120th of a second. By wearing glasses which alternate otherwise invisible LCD-based shutters very quickly, each eye sees only what it's supposed to see, and only for as long as it's supposed to see it. This has the effect of rendering the image in equally stunning 3D - though this system uses technology, is more expensive for the glasses and requires periodic recharging to be used.



The first solution may ultimately prove the most desirable because the glasses are fully passive, and because of that contact lenses can be worn making it more desirable in an office environment. In this method, only the lenses are coated with a polarized film at the factory at just the correct angles. There are no additional chips, circuits or batteries to this method. Such an approach is inexpensive and every member of the house or office can have one with little cost. The downside is that the polarized model requires a 3DTV or monitor with double the resolution - as both images must be displayed simultaneously. Suddenly, the 1080p TV becomes a 2160p TV with 4x the pixels crammed into the same space.

The technology we have today can do this, however expensively - and it can do it quite well. In five to ten years, such technology will be extremely commonplace and affordable. At that point we should begin seeing 3D Blu-ray movies, 3D broadcasts for both regular television shows as well as national and local news, as well as 3D Internet sites which are truly 3D experiences.

The only real question for our computer experience is how do we migrate the concept of multi-touch, something we're just now getting, into the concept of spatial-touch?



If history is any teller, this next phase of 3DTV and 3D computers (and related technologies like websites) will be rolled out much more smoothly than the transition to LCD and HDTVs. This is because technology has caught up with what's required to physically display the images. The only thing required now is that the consumer transition from non-3D to 3D. And with virtually every manufacturer displaying prototypes which are visually appealing (almost beyond words compared to regular TV), the reality is this technology won't take nearly as long to catch on because it is a mere extension of the existing HDTV technology, not a revamping of it.



If we consider the technology that's available today, such as generated characters like Emily now coupled to true 3D presentations on 3DTVs, then what future is it our children will grow up in? Many of us my age and older (around 40) have a baseline of analog TVs, four local channels, having to get up to change the channel (no remotes), no computers, no cell phones and no text messages in our youth.

Our children today are growing up at a point and time when technology can simulate virtually anything, and do so in such realistic manners that within a few years it will all be indistinguishable from reality ... it is a fully technological world we're moving into - and I would think that might be of concern to some of us.



UPDATED: January 13, 2009 - 8:51am CST
Following a reader's comment I wanted to clarify something about the uptake by consumers of 3DTV happening faster than that of LCD or HDTV.

The technology used for 3DTV is a mere extension of existing HDTV technology. It is not a solid replacement. Future 3DTVs will have the ability to switch back and forth between 3D and non-3D modes by remote control. This will allow future consumers to purchase 3DTVs when they do not intend to wear special glasses or contact lenses. This will allow the industry to get the TVs into the public's hands so that when those consumers do want to see 3D content they can wear glasses.

For most consumers, watching TV doesn't need to be a 3D experience. However, since technology is enabling that ability I find it very unlikely that we will be without 3D for long.

Of course, this is all my opinion. I could be wrong. And I very much look forward to reading your opinion.



The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.