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Friday, January 9, 2009

Bringing 3D Home

Credit: Technology Review

According to industry estimates, there are already some two million television sets in homes that are ready to show 3-D video. The only problem is that there aren't a lot of 3-D broadcasts ready to roll. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, however, electronics and 3-D production companies are showing off the potential of 3-D content with the hope that in-home 3-D television will be mainstream within a couple of years.

The experience of watching a movie in 3-D has changed significantly over the past few decades. Gone are the red and blue cardboard glasses that meld two different images together and often distort on-screen colors. Directors and cinematographers have also learned to avoid gimmicks, like a pie in the audience's face, and are trying to use the extra dimension to tell the story better. Many new televisions are already shipping with software and hardware that supports 3-D, and some early adopters are taking advantage of the technology with video games.

Mitsubishi, Samsung, Panasonic, Sony, and JVC will all be showing off 3-D products at CES. Companies including RealD and Dolby have developed technology that provides the correct visual information to the left and right eye using polarizing lenses that filter two differently polarized versions of video footage to their respective eyes. By contrast, old 3-D movies used a method called anaglyph in which the film for one eye is dyed red and the other blue, while red-and-blue-tinted lenses filtered the appropriate version for each eye.

Mitsubishi and Samsung, for instance, have developed televisions that synchronize with another type of glasses that use shutters synchronized with the timing of the film's frames and an infrared cue from the display source. For this to work, television must operate at a frequency of at least 120 hertz so that the left-eye and right-eye information can each receive 60-hertz signals.

Philips has offered a display that bypassing the glasses altogether. Its 3-D television plays specially created videos that contain two frames for each scene, one with color information, and the other with grayscale depth information. Lenses on the screen itself project these slightly different images to the left and right eyes, creating the illusion of depth.

"3-D has picked up steam, in large part driven by the amount of movie-theater content out there," says Mark Hartney, managing director of the 3D@home consortium, an organization created in 2008 to speed up adoption of the technology. Hannah Montana and Journey to the Center of the Earth were both released in 3-D in 2008, and Hollywood is responding with more: three times as many 3-D movies are planned for 2009 than showed in 2008.

The movie industry has already tackled some of the biggest production and postproduction challenges by building effective 3-D camera rigs and software for cleaning up the artifacts that arise when a movie is shot with two separate cameras. (See "Making a Modern 3-D Movie.") People are becoming more accustomed to seeing movies in 3-D, Hartney says. "Now the question is, how do we translate that into home?"

One way may be to simply broaden the variety of 3-D content available. Yesterday at CES, Sony and production company 3ality presented a 3-D version of the FedEx BCS Championship game between the University of Florida and the University of Oklahoma at a Las Vegas theater. The game was also broadcast live in 3-D to more than 80 theaters around the country.

But in-home 3-D also faces a significant technical challenge: twice as much information is needed (one video image for each eye), so footage has to be compressed before broadcast. This means developing standards to ensure a uniform viewing experience across types of displays. "There are a handful of companies working on [compression] formats," says Hartney, including Sensio and TDV. "They're trying to be compatible with existing televisions . . . to convert 2-D to 3-D for broadcast."

Chris Chinook, president of Insight Media, a display consultancy, predicts that 3-D in-the-home technology will gain traction in 2009, but won't break out into the mainstream for another couple of years. "A lot of it's evolutionary and stuff we've been expecting," Chinook says of CES. "But seeing stuff supported and demoed by major companies is a milestone." In 2009, 3-D momentum will build, he adds. "But most of the stuff at the show is going to be demos of products that will hit the market in late 2009 or in 2010."