3D TV on verge of breakthrough

By Michiel van Nieuwstadt

Consumer electronics manufacturers are introducing 3D television sets to the consumer market.

Lying on your stomach, your nose hanging over the gravel of the track, you gaze upward as Usain Bolt’s powerful legs blaze past you. Far above, you see the upper rings of Berlin’s Olympia stadium rising over his world record-breaking run. Seeing a sports event in 3-D can be quite spectacular if you are close to the screen.

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If TV and filmmakers have their way, 2010 will be the year 3D finally extends its reach beyond amusement parks. Electronics manufacturers like Samsung, LG and Sony have introduced a number of TVs this month which allow the viewer to see depth when wearing 3D glasses. The TV makers are taking advantage of the success enjoyed by feature films like Avatar and Up.

How it works

3D TVs work the same way 3D movies do in most theatres. The viewer’s eyes are presented with different images shot from slightly different angles. That angle is key to experiencing depth. When we look at an object in real life, the difference in the angle of perception increases as we approach it. This difference is what causes your finger to “jump” when you hold it in front of your face and close one eye then open it. With both eyes open, the brain processes both images into one that includes the perception of depth, allowing us to judge distance and gauge objects’ size.

In essence, movies are little more than a sequence of projected pictures. For a 3D movie, two sequences are required. One for the left eye, and one for the right. The sequences are projected onto either a TV or a movie screen simultaneously. To see in 3D, a viewer needs special glasses that are able to block out images intended for the other eye.

An infrared signal ensures that these so called ‘shutter glasses’ open in time to let through an image intended for a specific eye. By the time the image meant for the other arrives, the opposite shutter has already been closed off. Doing this 50 times per second creates a credible 3D experience, even if it gives some people a headache.

Not all movie theatres or TV sets use shutter glasses. Some take advantage of polarised light which, unlike normal light, can be filtered using special glasses. While popular in theatres, it is less used on TV sets. Samsung, LG and Sony all use shutter glasses. “Using polarised glasses you need to keep your head straight if you want to see depth,” explained product manager Wim van der Meide of Samsung Electronics.

Some 3D TVs do not even need glasses at all. Philips has developed a system which relies on a battery of lenses to project the image emanating from an LCD-display in such a way that it gives rise to the illusion of depth. A comparable effect is commonly used in 3D postcards.

A different market

A little over a year ago, Philips announced it would not be introducing this system to the consumer market any time soon. A small Nijmegen-based company, Zero Creative, has higher hopes for no-glasses 3D. “Philips figures that it won’t be possible to sell large numbers in the short run,” said Jean Pierre van Maasakker, managing director of Zero Creative. “In addition, the content, movie and television pictures need to be produced separately. “

Van Maasakker’s target market consists of museums and businesses which want to promote their products using these special displays. “For the Allard Pierson Museum [an Amsterdam museum of classical antiquity] we created a 3D display of the head of a pharaoh and a Greek amphora,” Van Maasakker said. “The real head was in a display case behind the 3D image. Visitors could circle the two heads and see them merge together. The crowd response was quite enthusistic.”

It seems unlikely however that the home viewer will be flooded with 3D films anytime soon. Last week, director James Cameron stated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that a 3D version of Avatar would be available in stores by November. But Fox has contradicted that statement. Hans den Heijer, a spokesman for Sony, announced that his company intended to shoot 25 matches of the football World Cup in 3D. It would not be airing them on TV he added. “We want to use these images at festivals this summer for promotional purposes,” he said.

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