Thursday, February 7, 2013

So Close, So Far Away: Why Glasses-Free 3D Is Still a Fantasy

The promise is as straightforward as always—3D on your television, minus the glasses Glasses-free 3D, it's a concept that TV-makers have demoed at previous years' Consumer Electronics Shows, but a full-size, market-ready device has never been unveiled or announced. At a press conference here at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Philadelphia-based Stream TV showed off what might be remarkable: a glasses-free 3D panel that the company says could show up this year, with compatible content from one of a number of partner providers. glasses-free-3d-0113-mdnThe optimal experience, says Stream, is to use one of their so-called "Ultra-D" displays, with twice the resolution of a standard hi-def TV (or 2160p). But since Stream doesn't sell to customers, but rather to device makers and service providers, it's flexible. The company will happily convert regular HD feeds to 3D, and do its best to display the results on just about any flatscreen. They'll even provide a remote-control-based slider, so you can adjust the intensity of said 3D on the fly. In other words, Streams wants you to have 3D any way you can manage it, and without relying on 3D Blu-ray discs or all-3D cable and satellite channels that leave much, or maybe everything, to be desired. Stream waves its magic algorithms at standard content, and it gains another dimension. And it will eventually work with everything from the Xbox to monitors to tablets and smartphones. For the finale of the press conference, attendants were asked to line up in small groups, no closer than two meters from the demonstration TV (a Sharp panel using Stream's 2160p display technology). The video feed ranged from all-CGI landscapes and renders of the International Space Station, to promotional footage shot for the London Olympics. None of it was captured with dual, stereoscopic 3D cameras. It was all being converted. lg-smart-tvAnd it all looked bad. In the same closeup shot of a gymnast's hands on the pommel horse, fingers and knuckles might be convincingly 3D, but anything hazy, such as the chalked-up handle, would pop outward, swimming far closer than intended. The landscape shots were particularly brutal—while mountains in the foreground had proper depth, the cloud-topped, out-of-focus peaks in the background would jam forward. It was the same with buildings towards the back of a cityscape, or even the receding staircase behind a statue of the Buddha. This isn't a unique phenomenon. In my experience, it happens pretty often with 3D televisions, whenever the signal isn't particularly clean—like when you're watching a 3D movie on demand, instead of on Blu-ray—or when you set the TV to convert 2D footage to 3D. And it's always the same kind of image that misfires, one where, lacking the proper amount of information, the TV turns what might be smoke, or a softer focus, or anything that's pixellated, into the most alarming, inverted sort of 3D artifact, pushing what's often a background element into the foreground. Which is all to say that, despite Stream's claims that its proprietary conversion algorithms and 2160p resolution displays have dispensed with glasses, their demo proved otherwise. 3D TV is a testy, unforgiving technology, requiring perfect conditions to be anything other than nauseating. Stream's Ultra D approach seems to bring the industry closer than ever to a simpler, glasses-free 3D experience. This is progress, compared to past attempts. But the finish line—when 3D at home will be as painless as 2D—is still somewhere ahead, as hazy and indistinct as ever.