There were some very hopeful 3D home theater technology demonstrations at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. I only had one day at the show and there were 2700 exhibitors. Fortunately, there were only a few areas that I needed to focus on and home theater 3D technology was one of them.
2009 could be the year that 3D technology for home theater and gaming really takes off. Most of the major home entertainment players are showing a keen interest in 3D. Sony, Panasonic and Samsung were each displaying impressive 3D prototypes. Both Sony and Samsung were also focused on 3D gaming, but the focus of this article is primarily on home theater applications.
What was impressive about the demonstrations is the fact that all three companies are using technologies other than the anaglyph imaging technology that dominates the current meager market for 3D movies for home use. Anaglyph 3D is subject to ghosting problems and an HDTV must be tuned just right to obtain the best 3D effects.
3D currently used in movie theaters uses a different approach. Most movie theaters use a circular or linear polarizing technology that requires the use of special glasses with polarized lenses that separate the left and right images to create the 3D illusion (yes, all current 3D technology is an illusion). Some IMAX 3D theaters use polarized technology, but others use LCD shutter glasses technology. Both of these have proven to be superior to anaglyph 3D in movie theater environments, but have been difficult to reproduce in an impressive and affordable way in a home theater. That nut appears to have been cracked.
I want to cover the Sony demonstration first, because the technology approach appears to be unique. Sony displayed a prototype that uses standard Real D polarized glasses for viewing. Real D uses a circular polarized technology and it the dominant method for displaying 3D movies in the theater. The Real D method uses a single projector that alternately projects left-eye and right-eye images and then uses a method to circularly polarizes the viewing using clockwise polarization for the right-eye and counter-clockwise polarization for the left eye. The polarized lens eyeglasses separate the images for the viewer.
What makes it interesting is that using a polarized method was previously not possible with an LCD display. While an LCD image is technically polarized because the pixels have to orient themselves for viewing, you have to be able to display alternating left-eye, right-eye images with opposing polarization in order to separate the images visually using a circular polarizing method.
The Sony reps were not talking about their 3D technology. A few of us technology geeks in the crowd speculated that either Sony is displaying two alternating images using a special display screen, or they are using a dual layer display. The rep did confirm that a special screen filter is used in the process. The Sony images were crisp and clear with almost no image ghosting. At this point, this may or may not be a practical technology. The Sony rep said that this was just a prototype and is not a product in production.
Both Panasonic and Samsung showed 3D plasma displays using LCD shutter glasses. The shutter method also uses alternating left-eye, right-eye images, but used LCD shutter glasses where each lens alternately goes from opaque to transparent many times per second in synchronization with the image being displayed. While this sounds like an unusual approach, it does work well with the new plasma and LCD displays that have refresh rates of 120 Hz or higher.
The shutter glasses used by both Samsung and Panasonic were lightweight and comfortable. Each contained an infrared sensor that synchronized the shutter glasses with the video images. There was no visible ghosting and the video action was smooth.
Samsung only displayed a prototype that was running from a PC. They made it clear that this was not yet a real product and they had no immediate plans to start production. Panasonic, on the other hand, was showing a product that they said was coming to the market.
The most interesting part about the use of shutter technology is that it should theoretically work on any television with a 120 Hz refresh rate with the use of an external 3D controller. Special 3D recorded Blu-ray disks will be necessary. It is not currently feasible to convert standard Blu-ray or DVD recordings to 3D because the process requires that the original film be recorded using 3D stereoscopic cameras.
The real questions is: Can the industry settle on a Blu-ray format for 3D that can be used with multiple viewing technologies? If that doesn’t happen, we will once again experience the format war issues that we saw with Blu-ray versus HD DVD, but this time it may prevent the majority of 3D fans from investing in any 3D viewing technology until the dust settles.
By the way, I recently went to see the new Disney animation called Bolt. If you like 3D, this is a great movie for the whole family. Just make sure that you select a movie theater that is showing Bolt in 3D. I suspect that Bolt will be one of the future releases for 3D home theaters.