Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water… 3D is back and bigger and better than ever. Maybe not at the 2014 NAB Show, where 2D/4K screens pushed most 3D displays out of most exhibits, but, from what I was able to uncover in the Las Vegas Convention Center, 3D is on the verge of living up to its full potential both at home and in the cinema. Get ready for practical, glasses-free 3DTV sets and an eye-boggling quantum leap in 3D theatrical presentations.
Here in the United States many have become jaded about the future of 3D, but around the world it is booming. Last January, TechNavio, a technology research and advisory company, released a report predicting “the Global 3D Flat Panel TV market to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 15.4 percent over the period 2013– 2018. One of the key factors contributing to this market growth is the increase in 3D content broadcasts.”
Theatrical 3D product is also gushing out of Hollywood to an eager worldwide market. On May 21, during the Cannes Film Festival, Jim Chabin, president of the International 3D Society, told crowds at the American Pavilion, “15 of the top-grossing movies of 2014 were seen in 3D, and we predict 2015 will break new 3D box office records.”
DITCH THE GLASSES
However, many potential 3D fans are still holding their breath until we can dump the glasses. Autostereoscopic (glasses-free) 3D flat panel displays, or AS3DTV sets, have been around for a considerable time and until now many, like me, have been skeptical about them. But during the 2008 3D BizExpo held at the Universal Sheraton in Hollywood, Philips Electronics took a major leap forward by introducing their WOWvx 3D system on a 56-inch Quad Full HD set (see “All Dressed Up But Nothing to Show?,” Dec. 3, 2008).
TV set with Dolby 3D format WOWvx utilized left/right pairs of images called “views” coming out of the screen, and upped the number from previous attempts limited to seven or eight views suitable only as a digital signage gimmick to 46 coupled images that could more comfortably be watched in a home theater. Lack of interest and a paucity of 3D content led Philips to abandon the project in April 2009, but seeds had been planted that now are bearing fruit.
Several companies have licensed parts of the Philips technology, most notably Dolby Laboratories, building on it to produce truly effective 3D images without glasses. All of them provide a realistic depth illusion that mostly recedes back into the screen, called “negative parallax,” instead of the pop-out-at- you effect attained by glasses-based approaches. Now even this non-believer has been convinced they are on the verge of cracking this direct-viewing 3D challenge.
The first to hit the market with a true AS3DTV screen may be Dimenco who, based in the Netherlands, has had a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to produce a glasses-free home 3D set utilizing a lenticular optical filter overlaid onto a 39- inch 4K panel. In fact, Dimenco has been building the displays used by several other companies to show prototypes of their AS- 3DTV processes for several years.
Dimenco CEO Maarten Tobias told me if the Kickstarter campaign achieves its goal of 199,000 Euros ($272,948.40) by June 12, 2014, those who pledged 899 Euros ($1,233.07) will get their own glasses-free 3D display sent to them, although additional shipping costs are still to be determined. As usual, potential backers are enticed by a sliding scale, so those who fork over 4,999 Euros ($6,855.13) will be flown to Amsterdam to pick up their AS3DTV’s in person. At press time the campaign had not met its goal.
“This set will include Dolby 3D image processing licensed from Dolby and their 2D-to-3D conversion technology, but will require an external HDMI tuner or OTT box,” Tobias said. “If our Kickstarter campaign is successful we should start delivering sets on September 20th.”
You can find this Kickstarter campaign at www.kickstarter.com/projects/996026139/dimenco-no-glasses-3d-tv-inyour-home-for-899
Stream TV 50-inch monitor Fortunately, the competition for glasses-free 3D is heating up. Another contender is Stream TV Networks who have developed their own 3D format called “Ultra-D.” Stream TV is a Philadelphia-based company that is building on 3D concepts partially developed by Philips, and intends to license its Ultra-D hardware/software system to other set manufacturers.
Bud Robertson, vice president of business development at Stream TV, said Ultra- D involves a multilayered lens system bonded onto a 4K panel, and image processing that takes advantage of those optics on a sub-pixel level.
“Instead of sending out discrete left/ right views, our screen presents a light field that represents depth,” Robertson said. “We are using a variety of refractive and diffractive indexes to create the light field through our proprietary optical system to bend the light and thereby create the impression of depth.”
The first AS3DTVs using Ultra-D hardware and software are already being manufactured by Pegatron. Stream TV is in negotiation with other set makers such as Hisense (maker of Best Buy’s Insignia brand) and also Konka, China’s leading consumer electronics enterprise. The first Ultra-D displays should be on the market by the end of the year, with mass production in 2015.
READY FOR PRIMETIME?
Dolby Laboratories has been demonstrating their own Dolby 3D format at several past NAB Shows, and what they had at their booth this year reflected noticeable advances in the art.
“We’ve been showing prototypes in conjunction with Philips over the past three years,” said Roland Vlaicu, senior director, broadcast imaging at Dolby Laboratories. “But now we feel the technology has been refined enough to introduce into home theater.”
Dolby plans to implant their chip sets into several manufacturers’ AS3DTV sets, using their proprietary algorithms to render decoded 3D video through a 4K lenticular panel. The Dolby approach delivers multiple 2-degree viewing cones that can be seen without glasses. With a 120-degree practical viewing angle from a typical LCD screen, this can involve upwards of 60 viewing cones, each containing 28 L/R image pairs.
Roland Vlaicu Dolby 3D is agnostic about presentation technologies and can be adopted for either lenticular or parallax barrier filters on the display. With their approach, the resulting 3D images are necessarily cut down to HD for each eye, but they also can switch off those filters to provide the full 4K image density in 2D.
“The challenge is to make this a seamless high-quality experience,” Vlaicu said. “We have been working on a balance between the number of views, the depth that can be perceived and the available resolution. We feel it is now ready for prime time.”
Dolby has shown prototypes to several manufacturers, mostly Chinese OEMs, and at this year’s International CES they displayed an 85-inch 8K version from Sharp.
“We will likely present the first shipping models later this year for the Chinese market because of the high interest over there,” Vlaicu said, “and we are still observing the market in the U.S. We know that inferior product introductions of various 3D formats have hindered American acceptance in the past, so we want to do it right. But if things work out properly, sets equipped with Dolby 3D-licensed technology may hit the [United] States next year.”
As impressive as the AS3DTV advances at NAB Show were, the 3D revelation that crowned my Vegas experience was the 6P digital cinema laser projection demo seen in Christie’s Innovation Theater in the South Hall. I’m still spinning about it.
It’s such a major watershed in optimum 3D presentation that we’ll focus on it next month.
Jay Ankeney is a freelance editor and post-production consultant based in Los Angeles. Write him at JayAnkeney@mac.com.