in IT/AV Report, Spring 2007
The Long-Delayed 3D Revolution Is Here
This time, it may be most focused on commercial AV.
|Cheoptics technology used for a product demonstration.
3D is here again, this time to stay. And this time, its opportunity may be most focused on commercial AV.
Yes, 3D was a big deal in the movies in the 1950s, then failed commercially. Audiences tired of wearing those uncomfortable glasses, and—the much bigger issue, actually—studios and theater owners tired of 3D’s high costs. Filmed 3D required red/blue or red/green “anaglyphic” glasses or, alternatively, polarized glasses. Much more costly, it used special, brighter screens, two strips of film, two projectors and, usually, two projectionists instead of one. Those two films had to be perfectly in sync, which is progressively more difficult as film gets damaged from repeated showings…so there were not only higher fixed startup costs with 3D, but also higher continuing operational costs.
All it took was a few underperforming 3D features and a bottoming out of Hollywood’s general decline for normal 2D films in the 1960s for 3D to be abandoned. 3D has been resurrected every few years since, with occasional success as a novelty, and then forgotten about again.
So what has changed? Digital cinema, video games, computing power, the twin threat to cinemas from video downloads and home theaters and some very cool new technologies. Best of all—for a guy like me who already wears glasses and doesn’t like to scratch them with an additional set of cheap glasses on top—we may not require special glasses anymore.
Of all these forces, the threats to feature-film distribution are perhaps the simplest to understand. The threat of TV pushed the movie studios to try 3D in the 1950s. The similar need to create a unique theatrical experience today, as theaters face ever-more competition, has led Hollywood—in particular, the Walt Disney Co., directors/producers Steven Spielberg and James Cameron and soon, it has been announced, Lucasfilm—to invest in the new 3D wave. If part of your business is building systems for movie theaters, this is a very big deal. Some 700 theaters are now equipped for digital 3D, and that number is expected to rise to 3000 by 2009.
But even if theatrical is not part of your business, commercial AV seems at least as likely, and probably more likely, to make hay of Hollywood’s investments in 3D as feature-filmmaking. After all, fiction entertainment works perfectly well without 3D. But, 3D presentation can strongly enhance informational understanding in the sciences, medicine or any complex mathematical modeling. Not to mention video games.
Several technologies are competing to offer 3D via digital projection, and a few for 3D in video displays. Almost all are specialized and unique technologies, meaning they won’t work in normal broadcast TV or film projection, and won’t work with each other. Some use one kind of special glasses, some another, some no special glasses at all. Following is a roundup of 3D efforts now ongoing.
• Real D: Currently the undisputed leader in the field, Real D was founded as StereoGraphics Corp. in 1980 by independent filmmaker Lenny Lipton, who remains its CTO. The StereoGraphics name continues to be used on Real D’s products for scientific and industrial 3D, including software, projectors, displays and LCD eye-wear. Real D is the company’s brand name for cinema, where its software controls the 3D experience using other companies’ digital cinema projectors, servers, etc.
Most of the theaters equipped for 3D use Real D’s system, and most of the theaters expected to be equipped over the next year also are projected to be with the company’s system. That system uses polarized images and glasses to decode those images. Among the industrial uses to which the company’s products have been applied are many sorts of visual studies of physical information, such as NASA’s viewing of space images. Real D sells those products on its website, with prices entirely within the mid- to low range of the spectrum of commercial AV.
The rapid growth of 3D in theaters in 2006 and 2007 has enabled Real D to raise $50 million in a new investment round, and also to purchase ColorLink, its supplier of left-right switching technology required for image polarization.
• Dolby Labs: Dolby, a major power in supplying systems and core technology to theaters, has entered the 3D theatrical business, too. Dolby could be a powerful wild card, because it has resurrected a technological approach that was otherwise given up for dead.
Although Real D and most others in the business today use polarizing technologies to create the stereo-image effect, Dolby is using anaglyphic (multicolor) coding. Both are old approaches: Anaglyphics were used first for stereopticons, handheld devices for viewing still photos, in the 19th century.
Polaroid founder Edwin Land came up with the polarized approach for 3D movies in the 1920s. Often adapted lately for circular polarization rather than the original vertical striping (to increase the potential angle of view), polarized systems have long been seen as superior to anaglyphics because the latter have always suffered from inability to show accurate color. If you’re using different colors for spatial information, the color that is actually perceived as part of the image is bound to be less vivid or less precise, or some combination of the two.
In Dolby’s approach, however, viewers wear glasses that contain red, green and blue narrow-bandpass filters. In other words, only a little of the light in each color is used for spatial information, while the rest is passed through for accurate color sensing of the overall image. Dolby’s filtering uses the peak bandwidth of each primary color, which normally is overkill for video images, and often filtered out anyway. Each peak frequency range is shifted slightly for left and right eyes.
• Neurok Optics: Neurok is one of a few companies that claims to have developed a new type of 3D display using two LCD panels, one placed in front of the other. This would be viewable in 3D unaided by special glasses (the word for that is “autostereoscopic”), but just how Neurok allows both left and right images to be seen in their entirety, with one in front of the other, has not yet been disclosed.
• Cheoptics: A Danish startup, Cheoptics software controls 3D imagery in an inverted four-sided pyramid made of transparent materials. Viewers see autostereoscopic objects that seem to be floating freely, both within and outside the pyramid. The illusion is created with surface mirroring and reflections; the pyramid is used as a kind of prism, assembling light from four video projections into a solid, dynamic image. The system has not yet been demonstrated in the US, so we’re just relying on Cheoptics’ statements that the system works.
• In Three: Essentially a specialized post-production company (and founded by veterans of the video post-production business), In Three uses its patented process to pull additional information from existing film images (video doesn’t hold enough data to allow this), in order to convert older films to polarized 3D. The process costs about $5 million per two-hour movie. Converted films then can be shown in any 3D format.
• Fraunhofer, LG Electronics, Magnetic Media, Newsight, Philips, Sharp, Spielberg: All of these parties (Fraunhofer is an “Institute” and Steven Spielberg is a kind of institution, but also an individual human) have invested in polarizing lens overlays with accompanying software for flat-panel displays. These allow the light from specific pixels to be refracted in differing directions, thus producing a 3D image viewable to the naked eye.
SID Conference Demo
For example, Philips showed a product it called WOWvx at the Society for Information Display (SID) conference last Summer. WOWvx includes a series of tiny lenses organized in strips, which aim light in nine directions. A 42-inch LCD was used at the SID, but the technology is compatible with any existing flat-panel display type.
Sharp has shown similar technology using only two-directional lenses. LG showed theirs at the CES in January, with a huge 25 directions hit: The more directions the lenses push light, the wider the sweet spot for audiences to be able to appreciate the 3D effect. There are, however, tradeoffs that make as many as 25 directions seem unlikely in wide usage, on which more follows.
Fraunhofer’s technology seems applicable to any number of directional lenses, but we haven’t seen a working demo of that yet, or of the system in which Spielberg has invested.
Philips’ first announced customer for WOWvx is an exemplary one for commercial AV: Holland Casino, with gambling-hall operations throughout the Netherlands. Images floating in space ought to further the mission of the casino quite well.
A German company, Newsight, makes autostereoscopic 3D displays that are eight-directional. Newsight recently sold off its technology to a partner called Magnetic Media, and has entered the digital signage business; its first big installation is at Meijer supermarkets. Each of the 175 stores in the chain is to get 20 to 30 3D displays.
All of the mentioned autostereoscopic displays use either display-rib (also known as “raised ridge”) or lenticular technology to aim series of tiny lenses in differing directions. Many “normal” 2D displays use ribs to separate pixels; this is, essentially, a non-patent-violating technique that accomplishes the same thing as the picture-tube masks that have cleaned up CRT images since Sony’s first Trinitron.
|Philips engineers find that they have made their 3D lenticular flatscreen a bit too lifelike.
Display ribs used for 3D are a bit higher and spread out, and aim the surface material precisely in multiple directions. The surface material assumes its multi-lens shape as it is poured over the ribbed substrate. Lenticular screens are themselves precisely molded in a pattern that looks like series of rows of lentils—thus the derivation of the word. Each lentil-like shape is a bi-convex lens: a bubble shape. Lenticular screens are harder to manufacture, but generally offer more efficient use of light. That efficiency is critical in 3D.
A major caveat applicable to all 3D, even to old-fashioned film projection, applies especially to naked-eye 3D using a flat panel: Extraordinary brightness is a must, and faster frame rates and the highest possible resolution are highly recommended. Consider that a 3D lens superstructure fitted over a standard LCD or plasma display will aim the very same total brightness in multiple directions, or that a projected 3D image will have half its information shunted by polarizing or anaglyphic techniques to one eye or the other.
Both systems reduce the overall sense of image brightness, though the multi-lens coverings for flat panels reduce it far more. In old-fashioned film 3D, brightness is not a huge issue, because two projectors made for double the lumens. It is not a simple matter to add brightness to 3D flat panels, which are already in demand at the greatest possible brightness for 2D.
Frame rates are an issue because, just as directional lenses can be used to create 3D stereo-image spacing, so alternating images can create the stereo effect in time. Faster frame rates can make use of the same overall brightness level in a more efficient way, though, when used for 3D, they also entail some loss of overall perceived brightness.
Film was able to move to faster frame rates three decades ago, in the Showscan system that failed in the marketplace but that offered superior imaging running at 60 fps. When video was analog, increasing frame rates substantially was prohibitively expensive. Moving digital video to frame rates of 60 or higher (Neil Feldman, CEO of In Three, says that at least 120fps is required for good 3D quality in digital cinema projection) is much easier. Indeed, most digital cinema servers and projectors are now capable of at least 60fps.
Will 3D become a huge business for entertainment? Maybe not. But it will strongly matter for the presentation of complex information. That should make for several years, at least, of cutting-edge use in commercial AV, with high profit margins on the 3D software itself and with a boost in demand for better displays and bigger storage, at higher margins, too.