Is 2010 the year for 3D TV, games and movies?
23rd Mar 2010 | 10:36
Hardware makers and content creators hope so...
How 3D TV works
The future is here – and it's looking pretty. I'm sitting in a darkened room at Sky's HQ in West London, peering through a pair of polarised glasses at television's next evolutionary step - 3D TV.
In front of me is a 46in JVC 3D TV displaying a show reel of Sky's best efforts in the brave new world of 3D entertainment. It's impressive.
The action appears to be happening an inch or so behind the razor-thin bezel of the TV, then telescoping off into the distance. There's a real sensation of depth.
With Sky's Senior Product Development Manager John Dollin, I watch clips of a Champions' League game, a boxing match featuring Ricky Hatton and a spot of rugby. The ball zooms into the screen from the corners and the players run convincingly in front of the distant stands.
"All the investment we did in 2005 and 2006, when we did HD, is what enables us to do 3D. We're just piggybacking off that," Dollin says. The changes Sky needed to make to its broadcast technology to offer 3D channels were "small and incremental", and it plans to launch its first 3D offering in 2010.
The three dimensional clouds are gathering into the perfect storm. In December 2009, it was announced that 3D Blu-ray discs will be available from this summer. Graphics card manufacturer Nvidia already markets a 3D solution for PC gamers, complete with a high-spec monitor and 3D glasses. Even better, the tech works, and big-name manufacturers and content producers are getting in on the act.
"Every single [television] manufacturer you can think of has a 3D TV coming out," says Dollin. But promises of a 3D future are all too familiar.
Since the advent of 3D cinema in the early '50s, entertainment companies have sporadically announced that the future is 3D – and it's arriving soon. Whether it was House of Wax in the '50s or the 1983 box office smash Jaws 3D, the future has worn silly glasses for as long as most of us can remember.
What makes this time any different, and how is the entertainment industry going to make 3D stick?
How 3D TV works
Happily, 3D technology has progressed beyond recognition since the days of glasses made of cardboard and red and blue cellophane. The only constant is how we detect depth – each eye sees a slightly different image and the brain merges them together.
Flatscreens use a little trickery to display a 3D image: each eye is fed a different picture by filtering out light, and the brain is fooled into providing information about an image's depth.
One of the oldest – and least commercially successful – tricks in the book is adding red and blue tints to a pair of images and displaying them simultaneously. Known as anaglyph 3D, a pair of coloured glasses filter out either the blue or red channel, tricking the brain into thinking that it's seeing different perspectives. However, the technology isn't that impressive visually, and anaglyph has failed to find favour with the new wave of 3D technology.
Now there are two frontrunners. The first is known as passive polarisation, and it's what Sky is demonstrating. Footage is shot using two cameras that are placed in slightly different positions but converge on a single focal point – like your eyes. It then broadcasts two images, each 960 x 960 in size.
These are stretched across a special HDTV with what Dollin calls a "pixel perfect" polarising filter across it. Finally, a pair of polarised glasses filter out light line by line, providing your eyes with slightly different images and your brain with enough information to build a 3D image.
The advantage is that the glasses are cheap, making them perfect for Sky's initial intended audience of pub-goers. Dollin also says that the 3D image can be received by all of Sky's 1.6 million Sky HD subscribers without the need for a new decoder box.
The second approach is more accessible for PC users. It doesn't require a polarised screen – just a monitor or a TV capable of running at 120Hz or faster. Instead of showing two perspectives at once, the display flickers between them.
Light is filtered out by a pair of active shutter glasses that have LCD crystals for lenses. When a charge is applied to each lens, it blacks out for a fraction of a second, perfectly in sync with the image that the screen is showing thanks to a transmitter connected to the display.
This means the screen is a little cheaper – ViewSonic's 22in 120Hz VX2268wm display costs just over £200. However, the glasses are far more complex than Sky's passive solution. Nvidia's 3D Vision set – which comprises just one pair of glasses and a wireless transmitter – costs just over £100.
What you need for 3D TV and gaming
The introduction of 3D into your home means one thing to hardware manufacturers: the opportunity to sell more kit. The first thing you'll need is a new screen, and if 120Hz or faster displays seem costly, you should hold your breath when looking at the price of a passive 3D display.
The 46in JVC TV that Sky used to demonstrate its 3D content might be capable of 1080p and come with a pair of 3D glasses, but the £8,000 price tag is positively mouth-drying. Not only are you likely to need a new screen, but you might also need a new graphics card if your PC is looking a little long in the tooth.
All 3D games are rendered twice, thanks to the need for distinct left and right images. "It's quite handy for us that people want to play in this 3D environment," says Richard Huddy, ATI's Senior Developer Relations Manager. "The gaming situation clearly requires a great deal more horsepower, because essentially [the video card] is doing twice as much work."
There's even worse news if you're a console owner. Huddy says that while Sony and Microsoft are in the process of giving their PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles longevity by releasing new motion-sensitive controllers, neither has a future in 3D.
"The truth is, doubling the memory demand and the fill rate [would] overwhelm both an Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 at any respectable resolution," he says.
If Microsoft or Sony released 3D games for either console, Huddy says that it would be a "token effort". "You couldn't take any of the high-end games of the moment – Killzone, Halo 3 or anything like that – and run them in full 3D on those consoles. They don't have the horsepower," he warns.
However, a Sony spokesperson revealed to PC Plus magazine that "technological investigation" into 3D on the PlayStation 3 is underway, with a view to allowing gamers to play 3D games on the existing hardware.
For the time being, the best way to play 3D games is on a PC. Doug McConkey, a product manager at EA, claims that the PC is the best medium for dragging 3D into the consumer's consciousness. "The more platforms [3D] is on the better, but the PC has the potential to make it mainstream," he told us.
3D gaming on PCs
For now, PC users are at the forefront of the 3D revolution. Upgrading a monitor is cheaper than upgrading a TV set and, similarly, a graphics card can be replaced without the need for an entirely new system. 3D is even available on laptops.
The Acer Aspire 5738G, for instance, looks like any other mid-range laptop, but its bright 15.6in screen has a polarised filter that's similar to Sky's 3D system. Pop on a pair of polarised 3D specs and the ATI Radeon HD 4750 can render videos or games in 3D.
If anything, however, the Aspire underlines how new 3D really is, as well as how far it has to go before it becomes, in the words of an Nvidia spokesperson, "just there" – included by default in all consumer screens.
The demo material included with the laptop has an undeniable sense of depth, but vertical lines appear jagged and the laptop screen's viewing angles are so restricted that tilting the screen just slightly too far towards or away from you ruins the image.
3D isn't restricted to computers. Fujifilm raised eyebrows in July last year when it announced its twin lens, dual-CCD camera, the FinePix W1 3D. Like Sky's 3D cameras, the set-apart lenses capture the same picture from slightly different angles. Unlike the polarised 3D effects of Nvidia or Acer's solutions, however, the W1 relies on lenticular technology to trick you into seeing a 3D image.
Lenticular technology places a ridged coating on top of an image to feed you different pictures, much like the apparently moving images occasionally found on the back of cereal packets. The W1's 2.8in screen displays two images at once, so depending on where you stand you'll either see a 3D image or a mishmash of two separate ones. The upside is that you don't need a pair of glasses to see a 3D image, but, as with Acer's 3D laptop, the technology currently feels a little rough and ready.
Lenticular technology's major downfall is that it's heavily dependent on your viewing angle, so you need to be almost exactly the right distance away from the screen, and viewing it at almost exactly the right angle, which can be difficult with a handheld device. The W1's price also smacks of early-adopter pocket-squeezing: at £400 it's more expensive than the far more luxurious – but 2D – Canon G11.
Can 3D succeed?
For 3D to succeed, it will take much more than a token effort. According to Sky's Dollin, part of the reason previous generations of 3D have failed to capture the imagination of the gaming and film-going public is that 3D was treated as a "fairground ride" – a gimmick.
Unsuccessful efforts at 3D tried too hard, he says, exhausting audiences by providing a constant stream of 3D trickery designed to make as much of the technology as possible. Modern producers "are trying to be a lot more sympathetic to the medium, and trying to make it more real," he says.
Andrew Pulver, Film Editor at The Guardian, agrees. Past attempts to bring 3D into the mainstream resulted in "low-rent, exploitative [films]," he says. New films such as Avatar – which is reported to have cost as much as £300million – could prompt an explosion of 3D films. Pulver says the 3D "works really well" in Avatar and that, for the first time, a studio has financed a "serious, major [3D] blockbuster by the biggest director in town".
There's little arguing with the list of upcoming 3D releases, either: director Tim Burton features heavily, with releases such as Alice in Wonderland and The Nightmare Before Christmas due in the next 12 months.
Games are easier to convert. Depth information is already programmed in, so the only major added cost is the hardware needed to play the result. "In development time, the costs are minimal," says EA's Doug McConkey. Hopefully this should mean a proliferation of 3D games – and soon.
Even if the future of entertainment isn't 3D screens, the world of the controller is expanding in every direction. Nintendo's Wii Remote is the most famous example – a controller that knows where it is in relation to the screen. Richard Huddy describes the Wii Remote as "immensely attractive" to gamers. And the figures seem to prove him right: the Wii is by far the best selling console, leaving Microsoft and Sony playing catch-up.
Sony's forthcoming motion controller, the Move, works in a similar way to the Wii Remote. It features a coloured orb on the top which is tracked by a webcam on top of the display, while the controller itself also feeds back motion information. A spectacular demo at E3 last summer hinted at an incredibly powerful system, although recent reports about lag are a bit worrying.
Microsoft's Project Natal for the Xbox 360 is even more advanced, removing the controller altogether and tracking a user's movements in real-time via a display-mounted camera. To hit an opponent, simply throw a punch in mid-air.
Speaking at the technology's launch at CES in Las Vegas back in January 2009, Steven Spielberg described Project Natal's announcement as "a pivotal moment" that would "reach far beyond video games".
With Sky's 3D service set to launch this year, 3D gaming beginning to emerge and popular blockbusters such as Avatar making great use of 3D technology, you might think that the battle is won. But the experts PC Plus spoke to were cautious.
"The truth is, it's stumbled many times before," says ATI's Richard Huddy, describing the longevity of the latest 3D tech as "the toughest question".
Will 3D stick this time?
Back in September 2009, The Guardian ran a story saying that the BBC might show Olympic events in 3D in 2012. This raised the prospect of a BBC 3D channel arriving in less than two years.
However, Roger Mosey, the Director of the BBC's 2012 Olympics operation, has been quick to talk the BBC's plans back to reality. "There won't be a BBC 3D channel in 2012," he told PC Plus. But that's not to say that the BBC is shunning 3D altogether.
Instead, the corporation plans to capture certain Olympic events in 3D regardless of the public's ability to receive them at home. "It would be a shame for some of the big moments not to be captured in 3D," he says – but for now, the BBC's priorities lie with broadcasting the Olympics in HD rather than 3D.
The BBC aren't alone in holding off from investing in 3D technology, and The Guardian's Pulver seemed to share the corporation's misgivings. "I wouldn't be surprised if [3D] did peter out," he says, noting that Avatar is largely responsible for the medium's future. The film's results need to be "pretty spectacular" for studios to finance more 3D films.
Sky's John Dollin is optimistic, though. He says that Sky isn't releasing a 3D service "just for the sake of 3D". ATI's Richard Huddy sees hope for the future, too: "If the BBC, Sky, Virgin and so on roll [3D] out over the next couple of years, then it will work."
Sky's service is to launch this year, although the company refuses to be drawn on precisely when. "This is going to be bigger than I think people believe," says Dollin. We just hope he's right.
First published in PC Plus Issue 292
Liked this? Then check out The complete guide to 3D TV
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