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The Display Continuum

Try and Try Again – Part II, In 3D

In the January column, we examined two products that seem to be in the “try and try again” category, namely the e-book and the tablet computer.  Then recently, I came across an announcement that literally shouts to be added to this category – the formation of a consortium to promote 3D for home entertainment.  Can it be?  Will we soon be watching TV in our homes in 3D? 

About fifty years ago, there was an attempt to introduce 3D movies in theaters.  After the initial burst of enthusiastic publicity, the technology did not succeed.  The need for polarizing glasses, the resulting eyestrain, and the artificiality of the “doll house” effect from the stereoscopic images, made 3D movies a one-time novelty.  Audiences found the 3D experience to be more of a distraction than an enhancement to an immersive viewing experience.  For movies that had a serious story line, the 3D effect turned out to be more of a distraction than a way to be further drawn into the story.   That is not so surprising given that the addition of two-view stereo creates conflicts within our visual system due to the lack of corresponding depth-of-focus, eye accommodation, and head-movement simulation.

Is there something different in today’s display technology, or in our viewing habits, that would lead to a success after fifty years of hibernation? 

The fundamental technology for producing stereo images has not changed all that much in the last fifty years.  We still need to use polarizing glasses for a reasonably realistic effect.  The auto-stereoscopic viewing systems that claim not to require polarizing glasses are really not very good.  They truly are still in the novelty category.  And the stereo effects are still limited to only a single viewing plane that does not take into account our eyes’ accommodation for objects at different distances, nor for the parallax shifts as we change our head position.  

If the technology for producing what we wishfully call 3D has not changed, then what could possibly be the reason for thinking that there is a market for 3D home entertainment? 

The answer may lie in broadening what we usually think of as “watching TV”.   What is new that didn’t exist fifty years ago are computer games and other computer generated images.  When playing computer games, the fundamental premise is already an artificial environment.   So the addition of a 3D effect that is only a rudimentary imitation of reality can be quite acceptable.  This could work especially well for games such as those produced by Nintendo that allow the user to interact with a hand-held wand that simulates the playing of a tennis match or the swinging a golf club. 

However, reading the announcement for the 3D Home Entertainment Consortium, I did not detect the recognition of this new direction.   As best I could tell, the stated purpose was primarily developing standards and methods for the distribution of conventional movie-style entertainment, but in 3D.   Oh well, the good news is that it really does not matter.  Consumers will decide what they like and how they will use 3D technology – or not.   From a consumer standpoint, it will be perfectly acceptable if the 3D technology is pushed by the conventional movie industry and then Nintendo or someone else quickly adopts it for computer games.  The movie industry may not be so enthused about the lack of use for what they hoped would be a new market, but consumers will be happy to have a new display technology at their disposal. 

For playing computer games, having to wear polarizing glasses while holding a wand is really quite acceptable.  The approximate 3D effect produced by a two-view stereo image may also be acceptable for watching other content that is computer created and inherently artificial.  But for the typical movie where the story line should be the predominant focus, it seems that we have nothing to offer today that is different from the failures of fifty years ago. 

For those of you who think that 3D is the next generic viewing experience, I would be interested to hear your thoughts of how and why that will happen.   In the meantime, I will be just as happy to see our rudimentary 3D display technologies enter the home entertainment scene through computer games, flight simulators, and other such “unreal” images.