The state of 3D: 'Disruptive change'

Is the tech finally breaking free of its gimmick status?
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I can think of no more powerful a demonstration of just how curious it is that 3D, one of the very oldest of entertainment visualisation gimmicks, is making a comeback than the vintage View Master. 

In case you have never seen a View Master, it’s a binocular-like slide viewer which accepts a cardboard disk holding the slide film frames. Face pressed up against the crimson plastic eyepieces, you peered into a world of glorious 3D. It’s not exactly Avatar but with 1.5 billion disks produced over the View-Master’s 70+ year lifetime, it seems a fair testament to the attraction of 3D. 

Now, of course, it’s all about moving pictures and high definition visuals. We can’t talk about 3D without mentioning Avatar. Every movement needs a hero and a $2.7 billion dollar worldwide take is a heroic effort by any measure.

3D pushed up ticket prices and it was the apparent willingness to pay for extra for 3D that really signalled beyond Hollywood that the modern consumers just might want the resurrected 3D ‘gimmick’ enough to upgrade their equipment.

Similar to the way that any View-Master can play the original disks from 1939, if 3D is going to have a chance at a critical mass then it needs to become a proper standard. Only then can 3D content be rolled out and consumers can buy with confidence that their new equipment will operate seamlessly. 

Stu Lipoff, IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Fellow and Chairman of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society Standards Committee is of the mind that such standards have already arrived and that 3D is here to stay: 

"Iconic cinema releases such as Avatar and Up have brought 3D to the consciousness of the mass market. Critics are suggesting that consumer interest is a flash in the pan but I believe that actually we are on the verge of a major disruptive change in media and entertainment - on a par with the transition from black & white to colour TV and from standard definition analogue to high definition digital TV,” said Lipoff.

The move to 3D is certainly not completely without pitfalls, however. There are a number of competing technological solutions which achieve the 3D effect in different ways. There’s a good degree of confusion in the market and one such issue that comes up frequently is whether the need for glasses is a short term technical limitation that’s destined for a Betamax-like phase.

Glasses-free 3D employs optical techniques within the display in order to present different images depending on the angle of viewing. For this reason these systems are highly sensitive to viewing position. That’s not likely to be a problem for someone sat at a computer monitor playing a game, for example, but it’s almost totally unsuitable for a typical lounge room. 

3D monitors appearing at electronic trade shows boasting glasses-free operation seem to have done more harm than good to the general understanding of the issue by promoting the idea that this true glasses free 3D is just going to arrive in the future. It will do, as seen in the new Nintendo 3DS, but it works best if there’s a system for knowing where the user is and if the positioning is fairly well known – just as it is for someone holding a handheld gaming unit.

In talking about native 3D displays such as these, James Coulson, ViewSonic Europe European marketing manager said, “Current technologies are a natural stop-gap to 100 per cent 3D solutions, but these are not going to be of a high enough quality and at a mass market price point for a while. However the key to mass adoption will be ensuring that users get an experience proportional to the amount they’ve invested.”

3D “active shutter” glasses however, have a much easier upgrade path by being essentially compatible with the current forms of display technology available. As such active shutter technology has been implemented with a wide variety of equipment including LCD HDTVs, 3D video projectors and even 3D computer monitors.

The level of industry support for active shutter is considerable. Coulson explains why: “We promote active shutter technology as we feel it provides better picture clarity and resolution than other solutions.”

Active shutter technology depends upon display devices that can display a refresh rate double that which is ordinarily required. For a monitor to do 60Hz in 3D, it needs to be able to do 120Hz. The 3D glasses comprised of an IR receiver and an LCD-based “active shutter” for each eye. In response to a synchronising pulse, the glasses switch dark/clear in front of each eye in quick succession. 

The good news is this technology isn’t difficult and has been around for awhile already. So when a manufacturer launches a 3D capable TV or video monitor, at the very least it means it can handle a 120Hz refresh rate but they also often have the IR transmitter to send the signal to shutter glasses. Perhaps predictably seeing proprietary glasses and IR standards have been seen as manufacturers view selling a pair of extra glasses as a valuable up sell opportunity. 

Happily there are some 3D standards right where it really counts such as Blu-ray disks and the newly ratified HDMI 1.4 standard. The Blu-ray standard is an extension of the existing standard and is backwards compatible for 2D players, thankfully. HDMI 1.4 defines mechanisms for packing frames side by side in a system that should ensure the virtual elimination of standards issues relating to getting 3D content from a player to the display device. 

HDMI 1.4 also increases the bandwidth to allow genuine 1080p 60Hz/120Hz content in 3D which is something that’s not possible on the current HDMI 1.3. HTML 1.3 will be limited to 720p 3D, film frame rate 24Hz and interlaced 1080. These are the same sort of limitation many HD sets have anyway but it’s gratifying to see the limits addressed already. 

3D ready video projectors are a surprisingly reasonable cost given the potential of a draw dropping big-screen 3D experience. For example, ViewSonic launched the PJD6531w 3D capable projector in May. It’s ‘only’ a 720p unit but with a street price around £600 it’s a great way to get large screen 3D on the cheap. At the other end of the scale LG announced the CF3D ‘Full HD 3D’ 1080p projector at CES in January but it’s still only available to buy in Korea and it’ll set you back a cool $10,000 or so.

Many more consumers will gravitate to the flexible LCD HDTV route and examples here include the Samsung LE46C750 46-inch unit which, in addition to 3D ready capability, carries your usual collection of high-end television features including a Freeview tuner. The 46-inch unit is going for a bit less than £1,200 while a similar 40-inch model will set you back about £900. HDTVs have for some time been making a song and dance about so-called 200Hz refresh modes anyway, so the addition of 3D capability is a relatively trivial add-on, hence the rapid expansion of “3D Ready” devices.

If there’s a caveat to be wary of with the current crop of devices it’s that HDMI 1.4 hasn’t yet widely arrived in products on the market but it’s HDMI 1.4 which will guarantee the various 3D image transmission modes will work and furthermore guarantees the very highest quality “Full HD” 1080p full refresh rate 3D. 

3D is relatively inexpensive upgrade which can be effectively obtained as part of upgrading to one of the widely available 3D ready models of HDTV and has the potential to immediately impress with eye-popping depth bringing the image to life. It’s the source material which is the problem. With 3D broadcasting in embryonic stage, and with a limited amount of 3D Blu-ray content on the market, there are simply not many opportunities to don the 3D glasses and step into the screen. 

There is one exception, however, and that’s gaming. 3D in videogames has the capability to deliver a jaw-dropping experience for every 3D game ever made. 

In part two of State of 3D, we’ll be taking a look at 3D gaming what role consoles and the PC have are likely to play in driving the consumer uptake of 3D. 

Image credit: Viewsonic

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