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Break on Through (To the Other Side) (Part 1 of 3 on the Evolution of 3D Technology)

February 16, 2010

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3D imaging technology has been around since the mid-1800s, but had never made real progress in the media world…  until now.  Will the experience finally catch on with the mainstream, or is it simply an illusion?

You may have heard about the blue aliens, exotic creatures, scenic landscapes, and explosive action that have ravaged movie theaters during the past two months.  In fact, you may have been one of the millions of people who have witnessed the spectacle Avatar.  The newly crowned box office king, having grossed over $2 billion worldwide, has left audiences mesmerized with its groundbreaking 3D presentation.

Will the experience of vibrant 3D motion pictures ever carry over into home entertainment?  Well, it may not be too long before those blue aliens break through your television screen.  Several manufacturers recently introduced 3D capable television models.  Most of them are scheduled to hit the consumer market this year.

The newly enhanced 3D televisions were considered to be the biggest hit at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.  Many experts and insiders believe stereoscopy, or 3D, will be the next breakthrough in home entertainment popularity.  Others are less optimistic that the buzz will carry over into consumer spending.  Regardless of the forecasts, there is no doubt that 3D technology, particularly in television systems, has taken a giant leap forward.

HOME INVASION: Leading television manufacturers are introducing new 3D capable models this year. They are expected to start around $2000.

Surprisingly, 3D television technology has been in existence for quite some time.  In fact, there are several different techniques which are used to produce still and motion pictures with a three dimensional effect.  Probably the type most common to consumers is the anaglyphic technology in which viewers don the slick, cardboard glasses with red and cyan lenses.

Anaglyph images were developed as early as the mid-1800s in Germany.  They consist of two layers of imagery made up of two filtered colors, superimposed upon one another in an offset fashion.  Once the images are viewed through the glasses, the illusion of depth is created through the visual cortex of the brain.  Various media platforms including theatrical films, DVD’s, and video games are capable of utilizing the anaglyphic process.

The anaglyphic process is aesthetically effective, but it has its share of pitfalls.  The picture quality and overall 3D effect produced is less than stellar.  The color filtering method results in pictures that are less vivid than when viewed in normal 2D fashion.  Also, the use of color filters distorts the input of imagery to the eye leaving many people with headaches and nausea.

Although visually intriguing, the anaglyph 3D system proved to be rudimentary technology. Vast improvements in the viewing experience were made with the development of newer methods.

The current 3D imaging method in use today, polarization, is visibly superior to its predecessor.  The polarized 3D system has been around since the mid-1930s. The technology, commercially referred to as RealD, is the standard for cinematic viewing.

FASHION EVOLVES WITH TECH: Is it merely a coincidence that 3D eyewear has experienced a fashionable transformation over the years? You decide. From top to bottom: Anaglyphic filtered glasses dazzled with the retro look of the 80s, polarized glasses sported a sleek Ray-Ban type of appeal, while active-shutter glasses boast the techie cyberpunk look of the future.

Similar to the anaglyphic process, this technology operates by superimposing two images onto a silver screen.  Rather than color filters, RealD images are projected through polarized filters.  Essentially, certain portions of light are restricted through the polarization process.

Viewers also wear glasses, but these are equipped with an additional set of polarizing filters in the lenses.  The combination of filters controls the light to the eyes in such a manner that each eye sees a different image.  The viewer sees the same scene, but from slightly different perspectives through each eye.  The result is a stereoscopic, or three dimensional, effect.

Many films in the early 1950s incorporated polarization 3D systems.  In fact, many aficionados refer to the years 1952 – 1955 as the “golden era” of 3D.  Unfortunately, the high costs and complex methods involved in projecting these films eventually resulted in a lack of popularity.

There had been attempts at reviving 3D entertainment since then, but without any real consistency.  The enormous box office draw generated by Avatar may however indicate a rebirth of 3D cinematic pictures.  The new technology and filming methods may even prove to be more significant than the movie itself.

Will the success of Avatar carry an impact beyond the movie theaters?  More consumers are opting for home entertainment over higher movie ticket prices.  Components such as Blu-Ray players and HDTV’s have become more affordable.

If the 3D experience is making a big splash in cinematic venues, then it only makes sense to package it for home consumption.

That is exactly the approach that leading manufacturers like Sony, Panasonic, and LG are taking.  Even major broadcasters and providers, like DirecTV and ESPN, are getting in on the act.

That approach starts with a filming technique called alternate-frame sequencing.  Scenes are filmed simultaneously with two different cameras, recording images for the left and right eyes.  These frames are then placed  on a single strip of film, alternating from left to right.  During playback, the film is projected at 48 frames per second versus the standard 24 frames per second.

The other component that enables this new 3D technique to function is active-shutter technology.  The old-school cardboard glasses have been replaced with battery-powered glasses containing shutters.  Instead of just fancy eyewear, these glasses are more integral in the viewing experience.

The HDTV sends a wireless signal to the receiver within the glasses.  This allows the glasses to synchronize with the alternating images projecting from the television.  The electrical signals activate the shutters, essentially an LCD screen, to open and close rapidly.

The left eye sees only the left image and the right eye sees only the right image.  Because it is happening so fast, the brain blends these images together to produce a stereoscopic image.  The end result is the illusion of depth.

So if you were wondering whether those blue aliens could ever land on the other side of your television screen, it may just happen sooner than you think.  Many manufacturers and broadcasters are banking on 3D as this year’s breakthrough in home entertainment.  The consumer market will ultimately decide whether it really is the next frontier of television viewing.

Progressive 3D technology isn’t strictly limited to the confines of your living room.  Part two of this series will feature the amazing capabilities of 3D imagery in live environments.  Audiences are immersed in virtual concerts of their favorite bands.  Teleconferences are conducted with lifelike images of people.  And swarms of robotic fireflies are choreographed in midair.

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