When was the last time you saw a 3D movie? Any idea what format or how old the technology was? Did you know most theaters still use dated 3D technology to save a few bucks (while charging us a premium still) instead of upgrading to a better 3D experience? It’s been a major topic of discussion for years and whenever I hear people debating if 3D is worth it or not, I hear some pretty strong opinions on both sides. By now you’ve probably seen a movie at the theaters in some form of 3D. You may have even formed a strong opinion based on that single 3D experience that is most likely dated due to older 3D technology like IMAX, dominating theaters still. To add to the confusion, there’s 4 different 3D formats currently being used in theaters. Each of which offering a somewhat different 3D experience, further fueling arguments for and against 3D as a whole. The latest and currently the best 3D experience available to the public is the active shutter lens technology that is used in the glasses for new 3DTV’s. Here’s a quick rundown of each one from oldest to newest:
IMAX uses one of the oldest 3D techs known as linear polarization. To create the illusion of three-dimensional depth, the IMAX 3D process uses two camera lenses to represent the left and right eyes. The two lenses are separated by the average distance between a human’s eyes. By recording on two separate rolls of film for the left and right eyes, and then projecting them simultaneously, viewers experience seeing a 3D image on a 2D screen.
RealD 3D cinema technology uses circularly polarized light to produce stereoscopic image projection. Circular polarization technology has the advantage over linear polarization methods in that viewers are able to tilt their head and look about the theater naturally without a disturbing loss of 3D perception, whereas linear polarization projection requires viewers to keep their head orientation aligned within a narrow range of tilt for effective 3D perception; otherwise they may see double or darkened images.
For 3D presentations, an alternate color wheel is placed in the projector. This color wheel contains one more set of red, green, and blue filters in addition to the red, green, and blue filters found on a typical color wheel. The additional set of three filters are able to produce the same color gamut as the original three filters but transmit light at different wavelengths. This method of stereoscopic projection is called wavelength multiplex visualization. The dichroic filters in the Dolby 3D glasses are more expensive and fragile than the glasses technology used in circular polarization systems like RealD Cinema and are not considered disposable. However, an important benefit of Dolby 3D as compared to RealD is that no special screen is needed for it to work.
XpanD 3D (Active Shutter)
The XpanD 3D system is arranged to alternately flash the images for each eye at high speed. The viewer wears electronic glasses whose LCD lenses alternate between clear and opaque to admit only the correct image at the correct time for each eye. An invisible infrared signal is broadcast in the auditorium which is picked up by electronics in the glasses to synchronize the shutter effect.
Here’s an excellent Sony 3D video that further explains how active shutter technology works:
Too new and expensive for most theaters just yet (passive lenses remain dominant), almost all 3DTV’s on the market and currently being manufactured use the active shutter technology used in XpanD 3D. I’ve had a 3DTV for over two months now and my perspective of 3D has definitely changed after having the chance to experiment with the different formats and media.
I was surprised to see such extensive settings while in 3D mode. The 3D menu itself has depth and optimization options along with another set of picture settings just for 3D and the ability to use 240hz in 3D to fine tune your experience if your TV has that feature. These 3D settings automatically tell you that there’s more to this than plopping down and putting on the glasses but I think extra optimization is a good thing in this case, even at the cost of a little confusion at first.
The best 3D experience currently available for 3DTV’s are 3D Blu-Rays. The 3D effect here is much more pronounced than the other formats most of us have seen. It can constantly display characters and objects several feet off screen giving you a fully rendered 3D picture that you can reach out and pass your hands through. If you haven’t seen this in action, there’s been a station in most Best Buys for the past few months displaying the Monsters vs. Aliens 3D Blu-Ray and it’s pretty amazing when you see it. This really shows what active shutter lens 3D is capable of and will be the measuring stick for the remainder of my comparisons.
To start my tests, the first thing I did was press the 3D button while watching HD cable and, to my surprise, a 2D>3D option appeared. I had no idea 3DTV’s even did this. Not once did I see or hear about this as a standard feature on 3DTV’s. I knew there would eventually be 3D channels on cable but actual 2D>3D conversion? It was a very nice bonus. At far camera distances, the 3D effect is not as high as when close up. Overall, it looks very similar to what Avatar 3D looked like to me in IMAX. There’s not much popping off screen but you can see the extra depth. The SD channels seemed to be such a low resolution that it’s probably only worth attempting to convert 2D>3D for HD content, though up scaled DVD’s faired a little better. I didn’t detect much ghosting, artifacts or crosstalk but I must note that we have the rechargeable glasses and not the battery operated ones and from what I’ve gathered, the cheaper glasses alone can change your whole viewing experience.
Next, I streamed a few 1080p video files from my desktop and tried a few regular Blu-Rays. We can’t detect any resolution loss here while in 3D. It’s still 2D>3D converted so it’s only a slight upgrade when compared to cable in 3D but it still looks full HD and the 3D effect is a little more evident. I watched Alice in Wonderland, Lord of the Rings, Matrix and a few others with 240hz turned on and they looked great in 3D but not close to the 3D effect of the Monsters vs. Aliens 3D Blu-Ray. The experience is much closer to 3D movies we’ve seen in the theaters recently. We will definitely watch these 1080p movies converted to 3D more often than cable tv converted. It’s very refreshing to look at my large movie library with renewed excitement after seeing the conversion in action on some of my favorites.
Lastly, I played some games on PS3 and 360 in 2D>3D. Sony has released several 3D demos so I tried MLB The Show 3D and the Motorstorm Pacific Rift 3D demo. Both looked great but Motorstorm was pretty exceptional. I went out and bought a used copy of this 2yr old game assuming there’d be an update to play the full game in 3D. Not the case. There’s no 3D mode on the update I was prompted to install. I was baffled that Sony would put out a demo of something you couldn’t buy but this gave me the opportunity to compare the 2D>3D conversion of games vs. the 3D optimized demo. I’m almost certain that all the demo essentially does is put your TV in the proper optimized 3D mode and makes some camera adjustments because side by side, the 3D demo was almost the same as the full game running in 2D>3D. The demo however was optimized to extend the bottom of the screen out into your living room a few feet so at times, dirt and passing cars pop off the screen and fly towards you in a cool way. Very nice. I then tried a few 360 games in 2D>3D. You definitely feel more immersed. In Battlefield Bad Company 2 for instance, it feels much more like you are there moving with your characters in the dense jungle while the 3D was not as noticeable when playing Blur. There’s nothing popping off screen or any of that but the depth of the environments and characters make it hard for anyone to argue if this is the future for gaming or not.
One of the main detractors to 3D is the reported eye strain that some people experience while watching, usually a result of fatigue. I don’t wear glasses regularly so getting used to that took some time for me. The glasses bothered me quite a bit at first. It was similar to the feeling I got while watching Avatar 3D in IMAX. I felt the eye strain after 10 minutes or so of sustained viewing causing me to remove the glasses every few minutes to rest my eyes. I also noticed that depending on what I was watching, the eye strain varied. Low resolution sources like 2D cable converted to 3D were more of a problem for me while 3D Blu-rays, 3D games and 1080p streaming videos did not bother me as much even after longer viewing periods. In my case, this essentially proves the theory that the majority of eye strain from 3D comes from the source of the content you’re viewing. Higher resolution sources won’t force your eyes to do as much work apparently. Another nice observation I’m happy to note is the fact that over the last two months I’ve gotten so used to the glasses that now I barely notice any eye strain at all even when watching movies all the way through.
Reserve your judgment of 3D until you see some of the newer 3D technology and content for yourself because if there wasn’t the barrier of buying ridiculously high priced glasses, this is all most people would need to see to be sold on this technology. To have a TV that can convert 2D cable, 1080p film and games is pretty sweet. I wouldn’t have been so worried about investing in it if I was aware of all it had to offer.