With Avatar in 3D in cinemas, we decided to take a closer look at alternative methods for producing 3D images that don't require glasses. Is the technology ready yet?
3D isn't new. It's been around as a movie gimmick since the drive-ins of the 1950s. But you'd be forgiven for forgetting that, based on the recent hype surrounding 3D and its future role as the saviour of Hollywood.
Not everybody enjoys 3D
For a lot of people, it just doesn't feel natural to stare through non-prescription lenses in a dark room for long periods of time. A better idea would be to somehow provide that 3D experience, without the need for glasses.
We can still remember a time when the first IMAX cinemas came to Australia and the average length of those early 3D films were no longer than 45 minutes in duration. In those days (late 1990s) , cinemas chains were acutely aware of audiences getting tired of the 3D effect, in the same way 1950s drive-in audiences eventually gave up on the format. They kept the format short to keep the interest from waning.
And that brings us to Avatar. Releasing this week, Avatar rings in at just over two hours and 45 minutes - two hours longer than those early IMAX 3D documentaries. Avatar's 3D is sparkling and painstakingly digitally rendered (read our review here). But it may feel like a long haul for audiences new to 3D. Cameron's epic is the biggest 3D film in history and it will either make or break people's opinions of the technology.
|Avatar could do wonders for the 3D format or alienate new audiences|
3D glasses can start to feel uncomfortable after long periods of time. It's easy to fiddle with the glasses, adjust them and re-adjust them again and there's always that tendency to lower the lenses and take a peek at the now-blurry images showing on screen.
|Audiences are still getting used to modern black 3D glasses, the types which are supposed to deliver better quality images over traditional red and blue style glasses. Source: 3Dsports.com|
But somehow, in the ensuring decade, filmmakers led by the likes of Robert Rodriguez (Spy kids) and a bunch of smaller horror film directors, have pushed the format out of the drive-in and into the mainstream Cineplex. And James Cameron was waiting for the technology to finally catch up.
|Lights, cameras, action! Robert Rodriguez gets busy with the world of 3D, a modern version of an old format he helped to pioneer with the kids flicks 'Spy Kids'.|
3D on the fly
Take for example, a recent '3D event' which took place at a packed NFL stadium in the US this week. The game was billed as the first 'live use of 3D' in sport and got fans excited about seeing their favourite sports stars literally jumping out of the instant replay screen.
The technology came from a company called HDLogix, which promises 3D rendering on the fly. Huge HD screens were designed to playback the best parts of the NFL match - in 3D. Don't mind the fact that at a sports game, the action is essentially already in '3D', so to speak.
Even so, every spectator was handed a free 3D pair of glasses at the gate. But when the technology was actually demonstrated to the crowd, the majority of the fans were reportedly not so impressed. Cheers can be heard when the picture resorted back to a standard 2D picture.
See the video below:
So what if there was a way to watch the screen without the silly loeaoking glasses, a way to resolve the eye strain and the motion headaches?
Despite the somewhat embarrassing public demonstration, HDlogix isn't finished just yet. They still have another rabbit in their hat that could change the way we literally look at 3 - a method that does away with the glasses permanently. The company details on their website a method that can automatically convert 2D to 3D using special screens.
Since we still haven't seen the technology in action and can't vouch for its quality, there are reports that we'll be seeing it demonstrated for the first time at the 2010 CES event in Las Vegas in just a few weeks time. But HDlogix aren't the only ones with big dreams of shelving the 3D glasses.
|3D without the strange glasses is still a hefty technological barrier to climb|
Phillips takes on 3D - with mixed results
In a Wired report from 2006, the press buzzed about 3D TVs by Dutch manufacturer Phillips. Apparently, the technology was so good, all you needed to do was stand in front of the screen and the 3D would magically project in front of your eye, minus the glasses. Known as WOWvx technology, the technology uses tiny lenses over millions of blue, green and red pixels found on ordinary LCD and Plasma screens.
The lenses then project light at one of nine different angles, and a TV processor projects nine slightly different views at different angles. The resulting image is supposedly just as good as a traditional 3D image and you don't have to look like a 50s movie geek to make it work.
But the Phillips 3DTV never took off. It was a disaster for the company. With prices starting at $US13,000 for a 42in LCD version, it's no wonder. In March 2009, the 3DTV experiment was discontinued by Phillips.
Sharp takes a gamble on 3D
Acuality Systems tried a same thing in 2002, and their 3D monitor was also designed to be viewed with glasses. But designed with commerical clients in nature and with a price tag over $40,000 a screen, it's not surprising we've yet to hear more about it.
Not to be outdone, Sharp also produced a 3D monitor that didn't need special glasses. Rolled out in 2004, the 15in LL-151-3D sold for $1,499. But it received lacklustre reviews and required users to look at exactly the right angle (and for one only one person to view such a screen). It also failed to provide 2D - 3D processing on the fly, as HDlogix are claiming.
|The Phillips 3DTV failed an early take-off for audiences and consumers alike|
Fuji goes 3D
It's not just the screen makers that are pushing for 3D in our daily lives, it's the hardware manufacturers too. Fujifilm, for example released the W1 Real 3D camera earlier this year.
|Say cheese in 3D: Fujifilm's W1 Real 3D consmer camera|
Reviews were not so kind to the camera, with some criticising the camera because the images were only viewable (as a default .MPO file) on a special 3D picture frame: the Fuji V1. And although you could view it without glasses, results were reportedly less than stellar.
And finally, there is the work of Johnny Chung Lee. Johnny is also the inventor of the very handy $14 tripod and his work on the VR camera tracking can be used as guide to the way television manufacturers may someday be able to offer 3D without glasses.
In fact, this YouTube clip (shown below) demonstrates some of the best 3D footage we've ever seen without the need for special equipment. It works based on the way our eyes follow different image angles on the screen and the result is very effective.
For now, "almost good enough" is about as close as we're going to get to real 3D (without glasses), until the technology improves and the manufacturing costs fall. The bottom line: don't throw away those 3D glasses just yet.