3DTV, the next technology

Oct 06 2008

3dglasses.jpg There's been a lot of buzz around the entertainment industry lately about the next new thing now that the standard for the next generation DVD format has been put to rest.  So what is the next new technology that will be coming down the pipe?  It's one that I'm very excited about.  3DTV.

3D movies have been in theaters for a number of years now and some companies have been trying to develop a way to bring it into your living room for 15 or more years.  So what's different now?  The idea is the same but now it has the backing (and drive) from Hollywood's major studios.

So here's a little background for you.  In August of this year,  there was a task-force meeting in Los Angeles, consisting of over 160 people from 80 different companies, that was chartered by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) to discuss the feasibility of bringing 3D entertainment home.  They are expected to publish a report sometime in the next 6 months with guidelines for a content mastering standard.

The Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California is attempting to put together a lab containing all of the various 3DTV implementations to be used as a staging area for studios to preview how their content will look prior to distribution.  This lab was founded by George Lucas (yes the man behind Star Wars) in 1993 and is sponsored by many big names withing the entertainment industry as well as a number of technology companies.  This group wants to define the core issues that arise bringing 3D into your living room.

Other groups doing work on 3DTV standards are 3D4You in Europe, which is government-funded, which aims to work on capture, coding and format specifications for 3DTV.  The Original System for Image Rendition via Innovative Screens (OSIRIS) was launched in February and is taking a crack at 2D and 3D projection technologies.  The Blu-Ray Disc Association is working on their own 3D implementation but has not yet made a public statement about it.

One group, Insight Media,  is projecting that by 2012 3DTV sales of various types could be as high as 28 million units, up from less than 300k in 2007.  They have also indicated that in the next 5 years various Hollywood studios are tentatively planning on doing close to 80 movies in 3D.  Word is, they're working on converting Star Wars and Lord of the Rings from 2D to 3D!  I can't wait for that!

So you may be asking, with all those people working on this new technology, why is it taking so long?  Well, that's just it.  There are so many people working on it and each is doing its own version.  Insight Media reported that they were tracking 22 unique approaches to displays alone.  That doesn't include various ways to encode the stream into 3D. And many other companies have designs in their labs that they are keeping very quiet about.

So here are the issues that the various companies are working on:

  1. Mastering content in 3D.
  2. 3D display.

Mastering in 3D.  The content needs to be backwards compatible with 2D displays so that the content provider (broadcast, cable, satellite, Blu-Ray Disc, etc) can send one stream and your TV can decide whether or not it can render in 3D.  One possible approach is sending two streams (one for left eye and one for right eye) but the obvious downside to this is that it requires twice the bandwidth (or sacrificing 1/2 of the resolution).  With the way things are today, providers are already struggling with the bandwidth available.  An alternative is sending depth info along with the regular pixel map and the display can interpret that into left/right eye data.  Blu-Ray is expected to be the first transport media to support 3D material due to the increased bandwidth involved.

3D Display.  Glasses or no glasses.  Industry experts say that if 3DTV is to be more than a niche market then it needs to be accomplished without the use of special glasses that the viewer must use. The problem is that presently, many of the implementations require the use of glasses for one reason or another.  One glasses-based implementation used in movie theaters is that there are actually two overlapping projections on the screen, polarized at 90 degrees to each other.  Then, each lens in the glasses has its own polarizer at 90 degrees so that each eye can only see what it is supposed to.  The advantage is that it's a completely passive system meaning cheaper glasses and no headaches. 

Another glasses-based approach uses shutters to separate the right and left eye information.  In this instance, the display shows both the right and left information by showing all of the left eye information in one from followed by the right eye information in the next frame.  The glasses then switch which eye is currently able to view the screen based on which information is presently being displayed.  Besides the use of glasses in general, the cons to this system are the added expense of the electronics needed to sync with the tv to determine which eye is seeing the screen, and the fact that it gives some users headaches over long periods of use.  The advantage to both glasses based implementation is that you do not lose any resolution and you have a wide viewing angle.  This type of implementation is used by Panasonic and Texas Instruments, among others.

One 3D implementation that does not use glasses is called auto-stereoscopic 3D used by Philips.  This is the one that many in the industry feel is a strong contender for a final solution.   More detail on its implementation can be found here.

One panel believes that it will be at least another five years before technology has advanced enough to allow 3DTV without the use of special glasses.

And not to be left out, Intel has teamed up with Dreamworks on a technology that they are calling Intru3D in order to bring 3D capability to the PC. 

So now the question for our readers is: What do you think?  Would you want to have a 3DTV?  If so, would you be willing to wear the glasses in order to get it?  Personally I'm very excited.  While the technology is no longer in its infancy, there is still a ways to go before it is ready for mainstream use.  I hope this gets standardized sooner rather than later without a huge format war like what happened with Blu-Ray/HD DVD.  Only time will tell. 

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