Welcome To The Future—And It's In 3-D
While 3-D technology has been around since the 19th century, it's only now taking off
In the all the recent hoopla about high-definition television, there have been some pretty astounding claims. Television manufacturers’ advertisements and marketing materials, salespeople in electronics stores, and the media (especially the technology media) have invariably described the crystal-clear quality of an HDTV picture as nearly lifelike, akin to looking through a large picture window.
That’s true if you live in a flat, two-dimensional world—but we don’t. Our environment obviously encompasses height and width, and especially physical depth: a horizon in the distance that viewers can compare to the grass right in front of them and the bird swooping between. At a concert, the audience can perceive the drummer at the rear of the stage, the distance between the percussionist and the guitarists or singers, as well as the diminishing proximity of the several rows of people between them and the performers. The pages of this magazine sit right in front of you, but over the top of this page you can unconsciously measure the staggered distances between the rest of the objects and people in your room. This depth perception makes our world far more than merely lifelike.
With few exceptions, the most “lifelike” representations of our three-dimensional world have heretofore been rendered only in two dimensions. For generations, artists, photographers, and cinematographers have used forced perspective to fool audiences into thinking they see depth; objects in the foreground are large and in focus, while those farther away are smaller or unfocused. We suspend disbelief to “see” this pseudodepth, but our conscious minds know differently.
We no longer need such tricks or caveats. The 3-D HDTV age has begun. An assortment of 3-D plasma and LCD HDTVs and 3-D Blu-ray players from Samsung, Panasonic, and Sony went on sale this past March, and soon (if not already) Toshiba, LG, and others will join the fray. You can rent or buy Ice Age: Age of the Dinosaurs, Monsters vs. Aliens, and others on 3-D Blu-ray, and, come this fall, more than 50 other titles, including Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story 3, Shrek 4, and eventually Avatar. Cable and satellite companies are upgrading their set-top boxes to enable customers to watch ESPN’s 3-D coverage of the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament from South Africa, and on July 13 Fox will broadcast the Major League All-Star Game in 3-D.
A 3-D HDTV, a 3-D Blu-ray player, and an upgraded cable or satellite box are all that’s required. Current cable boxes—even after they’re upgraded by your cable company—are capable of delivering only half-resolution 3-D at 540p (p standing for “progressive scanning”). In perhaps two years, new cable boxes equipped with the HDMI 1.4a connection jacks will be able to transfer full-resolution 3-D HDTV from your cable provider to your HDTV.
The speed at which 3-D has come to U.S. homes has been lightning fast. Work to create 3-D HDTV and Blu-ray started less than three years ago, possibly the shortest time between conception and product in the history of home electronics. But the basic concepts for rendering three dimensions in a two-dimensional form have been in development for more than a century.
What Is 3-D?
Look at an object across the room. Close one eye. Now open that eye and close the other. That object will shift subtly with the change in baseline of vision. With both eyes open, the brain integrates these two slightly different views—“binocular vision”—to create the perception of depth, or three dimensions.
Now single out an object and alternately open one eye while you close the other in rapid succession. That’s essentially how 3-D TV is achieved, shifting between these left-right images 120 times a second (60 for each eye) to induce the perception of a third dimension, in the same way that movie film projects 24 still frames a second to create the impression of “moving” pictures.
The human brain perceives three dimensions easily using our two eyes because our world is already in 3-D. Of late, HDTV and Blu-ray makers have succeeded in tricking viewers into thinking that they see three dimensions when only two are present.
Many viewers may think that 3-D HDTV is a gimmick, slick, or even stupid, but 3-D HDTV is here to stay. Within two to three years all but the cheapest big-screen HDTVs will be 3-D–capable, and so will all but the cheapest Blu-ray players. So too will be all but the most basic cable and satellite boxes.
Initially, 3-D HDTV makers are aiming to differentiate their wares in order to charge a premium. The factors making 3-D possible are simply the next steps in the evolution of HDTV, Blu-ray, and set-top boxes—improvements that, not coincidentally, vastly improve plain old 2-D TV as well. But eventually, like all technologies, the processes that enable 3-D will trickle down to increasingly cheaper models. Making all devices 3-D–capable simply makes sense in terms of manufacturing economies of scale, and competition will prompt everyone to make them.
Because so many conspicuous consumers will probably have 3-D–capable devices in a couple of years, studios and networks will generate 3-D programming, just as they gradually created wide-screen HDTV versions of their programming as more people began buying HDTVs. No one will force viewers to watch 3-D HDTV, any more than having a wide-screen color HDTV requires someone to watch all programming in wide-screen, color, or high-definition. A viewer will have a choice.
The question is, will you choose to watch programs in 3-D HDTV?
It’s the Glasses, Stupid
Whether viewers will wear glasses in their homes remains the most debated point of discussion concerning the acceptance of 3-D HDTV. These will not be the “passive,” or unpowered, sunglasses-like polarized 3-D glasses handed out at screenings of Avatar, but special battery-powered 3-D glasses. These “active shutter” glasses employ liquid crystal lenses that can be turned on (clear) and off (dark) 60 times per second for each eye. Using a signal transmitted by either infrared or radio frequency emitters in the 3-D HDTV screen bezel, the glasses are synched to the alternately flickering left-right 60-frame-per-second frames from the TV. The signal directs which lens to turn on and in what sequence. Active shutter glasses, which will cost between $100 and $150, will run for about 250 hours on button cells or rechargeable batteries. Rechargeable models will have microUSB jacks for recharging, and all will be light and roomy enough to fit over regular glasses.
Initially, the glasses from one manufacturer will not be compatible with glasses from others because of proprietary synching codes transmitted from the HDTV to the glasses. The leading active shutter glass maker, XpanD, and several other companies are working to change that by manufacturing universally active glasses. The Consumer Electronics Association is working with 3-D HDTV makers to establish a coding standard.
Eventually, competition and economies of scale will knock down prices. “The patents have expired. That’s why [third-party active shutter glasses] will become a commodity,” opines Lenny Lipton, who first developed wireless active shutter glasses for his company, StereoGraphics, in the late 1980s. “You can make them for $10 a pair!”
Where Did 3-D HDTV Come From?
Three-dimensional imagery long predates the wave of cheesy 3-D films from the 1950s. The quest to render 3-D images on 2-D surfaces started with Leonardo da Vinci but came to mechanical fruition with the description of binocular vision and the building of the first primitive mirror-based stereoscope—the familiar two-lens photo holder—by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1840, followed by a slightly improved lenticular stereoscopic viewer by David Brewster in 1849.
The application of these first binocular vision techniques—simultaneously shooting the same image or scene with two cameras—convinced early movie pioneers that they could achieve stereoscopic 3-D by placing two cameras side by side like a pair of eyes. The difficulty was projecting these two views so that audiences could watch them three-dimensionally.
Two cinema projection systems emerged: the first, anaglyphic, used the familiar—and cheap—red-and-green cardboard glasses. Film from synched side-by-side projectors was combined in such a way that information not common to both views would show up either as a red or green image. Those wearing the red-green glasses saw the images slightly differently through each eye; their brains would process these differences as depth. Although the anaglyphic system only required two synchronized projectors, the red and green filters altered the color of all objects on the screen and did not work well when a viewer moved off-center.
The other technology also used two projectors but ran the synchronized output through a polarizing filter, and viewers donned polarized glasses (a system devised by Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid instant film cameras, in 1936). These filters were nearly clear and so did not discolor the eventual image as much as red-green anaglyphic glasses. It was this polarized system that was used in the 1950s, not the anaglyphic, as is popularly believed.
Hollywood tripped through three distinct 3-D waves, each 30 years apart: in the 1920s, starting with The Power of Love (1922); in the 1950s, kicking off with Bwana Devil (1952); and in the 1980s, led by Jaws 3-D (1983). But aside from finicky synchronized projectors, 3-D films focused more on in-your-face spectacle than plot and characterization, a flaw encapsulated by the reaction to Bwana Devil’s marketing tagline, “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” The sarcastic rhetorical response: “What do you want? A good picture, or a lion in your lap?”
Because 3-D filmmakers didn’t deliver good films, each of the three 3-D fads got much initial attention, then failed catastrophically.
3-D in the Lab
While 3-D was failing theatrically for the third time in the 1980s, its industrial, scientific, and military applications were proving a big success. Earlier that decade, physicists had developed shutter technology, active liquid-crystal filters, and lenses to render 3-D on high-resolution 2-D oscilloscopes and computer monitors for use in chemical modeling, CAD/CAM engineering, and aerial mapping. With all the claims, lawsuits, and hearsay, it’s difficult to determine who were the real innovators, but a disproportionate number of the LCD pioneers did undertake research at Kent State University’s Liquid Crystal Institute (LCI) in Kent, Ohio.
Shutter filters and lenses at first used twisted nematic (TN) liquid crystal technology, developed by LCI associate directorJames Fergason in 1971 after more than a dozen years of research and development. But TN liquid crystal did not shutter or switch fast enough to create a realistic stereoscopic 3-D effect. So in February 1979 Fergason perfected a faster-switching liquid crystal filter, surface mode device (SMD). Five years later, physicists led by a Kent State alumnus (and the current associate director of LCI), Phil Bos, developed faster-switching liquid crystal filters, called pi cells, for oscilloscope and computer monitor maker Tektronix.
Pi-cell active shutter lenses were first developed as large, thin filters laid over a CRT screen, then viewed through polarized glasses. But in the back of everyone’s minds was a less expensive, easier to achieve, and more elegant solution: active shutter glasses, which Tektronix developed in the mid-1980s. These pi-cell glasses were hard-wired to a computer monitor, however.
At the same time, independent inventor and 3-D enthusiast Leonard “Lenny” Lipton founded StereoGraphics (SG), a Marin County, California, company dedicated to producing stereoscopic technologies and products. Twenty years earlier, as a freshman and admittedly “lousy” student at Cornell, Lipton had written the lyrics for “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” which fellow Cornell undergrad Peter Yarrow later turned into a hit for his band Peter, Paul and Mary.
Profits from “Puff” enabled Lipton to devote himself to physics and 3-D technology in particular. By 1982 he had published Foundations of the Stereoscopic Cinema, which included an appendix on 3-D television, and had hired an R & D staff including imaging technologist Michael Starks, self-taught electrical designer Lhary Meyer, and liquid crystal lens expert and Fergason acolyte Art Berman, a Kent State classmate of Phil Bos.
“When I first started with SG, Lenny handed me a pair of shutter glasses using PLZT [polarized lead zirconium titanate] lenses,” recalls Berman. “But they were unsuitable. They needed 500 volts and they sat heavily on your nose, and it seemed as if you were looking through a screen door. There was a desire to find a more suitable lens to use in shutter glasses.” At Berman’s suggestion, Lipton sought out Fergason and started tinkering with pi cells.
“We bought a pair of Bausch & Lomb optivisors, the kind jewelers use—they look like a welding helmet,” Berman remembers. “We had some Fergason lenses and fitted them in to test it. It was very appealing.”
“Marv Ackerman designed the infrared link using a pulse width modulation scheme to designate the left from the right fields and to make sure that the shutters were in phase,” Lipton explains. “We then employed a good mechanical design team, IDE of Scotts Valley, to come up with an eyewear appearance and mechanical design. We needed enough room for circuitry and batteries. We came up with what I called the ‘batwings,’ a wide temple piece that is now characteristic of shuttering eyewear designs.”
In August 1989 StereoGraphics unveiled CrystalEyes, which sold for about $2,000 and were the first wireless active shutter glasses. But, “for reasons difficult to explain or understand, it was hard to make pi cells and it made the glasses more expensive,” says Berman.
In 1993 StereoGraphics introduced CrystalEyes 3, which sold for $1,000 and used super-twisted nematic (STN) liquid crystal lenses developed by Mary Tilton of Standish LCD in Lake Mills, Wisconsin. “They switched almost as fast [as pi cells], and they were simpler and less expensive to make,” Berman explains. This basic configuration is now used in the RealD active shutter glasses sold with Panasonic 3-D HDTVs, among others. Lipton also perfected pi-cell filters called Z-Screens for use with theater 3-D film projectors, used by U.S. theaters that employ RealD passive glasses.
Tektronix, Fergason, and StereoGraphics sold thousands of active shutter glasses, both wired and wireless, as well as filters, to industrial, scientific, and military customers, each carving out often lucrative 3-D business niches. By the mid-1990s, engineers had made several attempts to add active shutter 3-D capacities to PCs and to console videogame systems such as Atari, Amiga, and Sega, but none caught on.
3-D Back in the Theaters
There can be no 3-D in the home without successful 3-D content, but Hollywood was understandably leery of yet another foray into this risky technology. The maturity of two movie technologies—computer-generated imagery (CGI) animation and digital light processing (DLP) cinema projection systems (made by Texas Instruments)—shifted the paradigm. Making movies with a computer eliminated the need for dual camera shoots, and digital cinema eliminated the need for two projectors. A movie could be created entirely in the digital domain and projected in the same. Right on the 30-year 3-D cycle, a fourth wave rolled out with Polar Express and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over in 2003. But there were few 3-D theaters, and few filmmakers were tempted to devote the time and energy to make a film few would see in 3-D.
In 2004 former Tektronics pi-cell physicist Boyd MacNaughton was approached by two veteran postproduction editors, Michael Kaye and Neil Feldman, who owned In-Three, a Westlake Village, California, company focused on creating technology to convert 2-D content into 3-D. The pair worked with MacNaughton’s pi-cell technology to convert small sections of popular films into 3-D, including the spaceship roaring overhead in the opening sequence of the original Star Wars film. When directors George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and James Cameron saw the demonstration, they were more than impressed.
“When I first saw In-Three’s Dimensionalization process I was truly amazed,” recalls Lucas. “Seeing my own Star Wars images in authentic 3-D convinced me that audiences could relive the Star Wars films in a whole new way.”
Lucas and Cameron volunteered to help present Dimensionalization at the March 2005 ShoWest convention of movie theater owners and operators in Las Vegas. Lucas introduced each 3-D segment, Jackson appeared in a prerecorded segment to express his enthusiasm, and then Cameron stood up to announce he’d be making all his films in 3-D.
The demo helped convince the Walt Disney Company to work with RealD and Dimensionalization to create a 3-D version of its first fully computer-generated film, Chicken Little, in 2005. As the number of 3-D films increased, so did the number of digital theaters in the United States using Lipton’s RealD Z-Screen passive shutter system, from a few hundred in 2005 to nearly 4,000 today and still growing at about 150 a year. Predictably, so did the number of 3-D movies produced for these newly powerful markets.
3-D at Home
“Once Hollywood got enthusiastic, it became clear there would be content,” notes MacNaughton. “I was convinced 3-D cinema would come, and this would finally lead to consumer acceptance of 3-D.” Coincidentally, digital cinema technologies came to maturity just as HDTVs became affordable and as high-definition Blu-ray was coming into the market, creating the necessary technological environment for high-definition 3-D in the home.
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2009, Panasonic made a splash with the first 3-D HDTV demonstration to use active shutter glasses from XpanD and a 103-inch plasma HDTV. But equipment executives were noncommittal about when they’d bring 3-D TV gear to market. The country was still dealing with the confusing changeover from analog to digital broadcasting, and peer pressure was pushing consumers to buy expensive 2-D flat-panel HDTVs. Manufacturers couldn’t and wouldn’t tell consumers not to buy an HDTV now but to wait for new 3-D HDTVs.
The future acceptance of 3-D in the home seemed to rest the hands of director James Cameron. If his film Avatar bombed (an outcome much predicted in the summer of 2009 as rumors raced through the press about the film’s bloated budget), 3-D TV would be dead on arrival.
Happily, Avatar’s huge box office gave equipment makers the goose they needed. Avatar was the killer app, the reason that geeks and early adopters would now have to have 3-D at home. Equipment makers rushed to get HDMI 1.4a jack-equipped 3-D HDTVs and Blu-ray players able to interpret the 3-D multiview video coding (MVC), with an extension of the MPEG-4 H.264 compression scheme, into stores as quickly as possible. Studios now are racing to get their 3-D films on Blu-ray—likely including all those cheesy 3-D efforts from the 1950s and 1980s for their nostalgia value.
In March 2010 Sony, Samsung, and Panasonic began selling 3-D–capable equipment. The subsequent success of Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland has raised the odds of 3-D being eventually accepted, despite the roadblock that wearing glasses represents.
Developers are already working on 3-D without glasses, aka autostereoscopic 3-D. An extension of the MVC extension—MVD (multiview video depth), otherwise known as 3-DV—adds extra data for additional depth layers to create multilevel stereoscopic images, or “views,” that will not require glasses to watch. The MVD standard is likely to be finished in three years or so. But two problems remain: filming these multiple views and displaying them.
“In a 3-D environment, you need two cameras,” explains Eisuke Tsuyuzaki, chief technology officer of Panasonic and a pioneer of 3-D Blu-ray encoding. “Autostereoscopic would need seven to 21 cameras aimed at you. For every refraction of light, you need a new camera angle. Maybe someday someone can synthesize that, but from a production standpoint, aiming that many cameras at someone is impractical.”
An HDTV also has to be capable of “projecting” these multiple depth layers through a filter placed over the screen. One multiview filter method, “lenticular 3-D,” is essentially an extremely advanced version of those 3-D cards in Cracker Jack boxes that you shifted slightly back and forth to see a 3-D image. Lenticular 3-D already is being used for static and video displays.
To decode, generate, and display these multiple lenticular views, however, requires a lot more signal processing power, resolution, and speed than current plasma and LCD 3-D HDTVs possess. At a minimum, what is needed is ultra-HD 4K, capable of displaying around 8 million pixels; current HDTVs display around 2 million pixels. At CES 2010, Panasonic hung an astounding six-foot-wide 4K plasma HDTV.
All the glasses-less 3-D technologies are already understood. Optimists believe glasses-less 3-D could be ready to be bought at discount stores by the end of the decade. Others believe HDTV with a hundred-times-higher resolution is needed, which means the wait for glasses-less 3-D may be measured in decades.
“4K is not enough resolution,” asserts Lipton. “Autostereoscopic displays might need 400K resolution. It won’t happen in five or 10 years, but it will happen.”