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What’s News: No More Goofy Glasses

The technology needed to make three-dimensional (3-D) movies has been around since the late 1890s, and there have been waves of enthusiasm for it in the decades since it first appeared. Yet it has never moved into the mainstream. Many in the television manufacturing business today believe that is about to change, thanks to technologies that are making 3-D viewing more user-friendly.

Anyone who has worn the goofy 3-D glasses may doubt that 3-D could ever become a dominant force, but recently a few manufacturers have discovered how to develop screens that can display 3-D without the viewer needing special glasses. This could well be the industry game-changer.

There are several ways to create 3-D films. One of the most common (the one relying on the 3-D glasses handed out at movie theatres) involves creating a three-dimensional effect by projecting the same scene shown from slightly different perspectives at the same time. The glasses are used to separate the image on the screen into two views, which your brain then merges so it seems like you are seeing one 3-D image.

The idea behind 3-D screens is to take that splitting back to the screen level. Initial tests with 3-D screens essentially involved putting a special screen in front of a regular monitor to do the splitting at that stage. But the first such screens could only be seen clearly from one position. No watching TV with the kids on the sofa: all but one of you would see a blurry image.

Some of the screens now being launched project up to sixty-four different images at a time so that they can be viewed as clear 3-D images from almost any position around the screen. Other manufacturers are experimenting with facial recognition technology; the screen contains a camera that is filming you watching it, and adjusts the display angle to track your movements. It is not clear how this technology would enable multiple viewers, but it could be a great solution for 3-D on handheld devices, which are typically only used by one viewer at a time.

Not all of the challenges are technological. Many people begin to feel sick when watching 3-D. If it becomes standard, will they be locked out of the television and movie world? Dr. Steven Nusinowitz, an associate professor of ophthalmology at the Jules Stein Eye Institute in Los Angeles, estimates that approximately 20 percent of viewers will feel ill as a result of watching 3-D, the result of  their brains have trouble adjusting to the split-second mental merger of images. Dr. Lionel Kowal, ophthalmologist at Australia’s Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, estimates that the number is probably closer to 5 percent, although a further 5 percent simply cannot see 3-D. Either way, the numbers are significant. One wonders, however, whether our eyes and brains will adapt as our brains receive increased exposure to 3-D, and as the technology used to project it improves.

For now, the new 3-D televisions will all be able to project 2-D as well, since there is not yet much 3-D content available. Companies such as 3-D Eye Solutions are developing systems that will ultimately make it possible to convert 2-D programming to 3-D almost in real-time. If that happens, those uncomfortable with 3-D will still have the flatter option available.

Professor Rick Grunberg, at Ryerson University’s Digital Cinema and Advanced Visualization Laboratory, is researching how people vary in their reactions to 3-D, and how those reactions differ based on variables such as screen size and age of viewer. For example, he asks, “If a 3-D hand is shown on a 42-inch screen, at what point does it become disconcerting to the viewer?” A hand seeming to come out of the screen may be disturbing to children if it seems to be coming from the side of the screen, but not if it comes from the center.

If 3-D does take hold, it won’t just be movies like Avatar raking in the money. If the evolution of the Internet (and many other businesses) is our guide, the two biggest drivers will be sports broadcasts and the pornography industry. Hmmm… I’m not sure I want to contemplate that.