Audio Ideas: Is 3D For Real, Or Just Another Gimmick? And Is It Dangerous For Some Viewers?

      Date posted: April 20, 2011


I’ve been following the recent 3D hype for over a year, wondering when all the dust will settle. As a youngster, I lived through the first 3D bubble, which like a balloon, quickly deflated as the thrill wore off. I remember ducking the arrows in Massacre At Feather River, and watched quite a few 3D movies at the Seneca and Capitol theatres in Niagara Falls with either red/blue or polarized glasses. There were a few that were in black-and-white, which kind of took the edge off the realism.

More recently, I’ve watched other movies in 3D, primarily IMAX ones, and that system does deliver the promise on the huge screen. And the technical specification for Blu-ray 3D calls for full 1080p for both eyes, so should not compromise the viewing experience by trading resolution for depth, and the discs will be 2D backward compatible with pre-3D players. That standard has recently been set.

But what about broadcast 3D? Here we have definite bandwidth limitations. It’s 1080i or 720p, and doubling the image halves the resolution. Blu-ray has much more bandwidth to work with. And then there are the glasses, active or passive, but more on that later.

Early in my research, I gleaned this from Wikipedia: “The Chinese manufacturer TLC Corporation has developed a 42-inch (110 cm) LCD 3D TV called the TD-42F, which is currently available in China. This model uses a [vertical] lenticular system and does not require any special glasses (autostereoscopy). It currently sells for approximately $20,000.[14] The biggest problem using [a] lenticular lens…is the sharpness of the display. Although we use 4K (4 times of Full HD TV), the image we saw was coarse in appearance due to lenticular lens technology required to refract the left and right images for each eye, so the technology used is certainly better suited for non-stationary viewing. The border around objects in the screen tended to shift quickly and blur.” It’s also better suited to smaller screens. I’ll say more about this later.

However, AVATAR director James Cameron (a Canadian, also from Niagara like me) thinks glasses-free 3D is “eight to ten years away”. And he’s the current master of 3D film creation. And here’s the latest from PC Magazine, as Cameron puts his money where his mouth is: “The director [has] teamed up with cinematographer Vince Pace to launch the Cameron-Pace Group (CPG), which will push for the adoption of 3D in everything from movies and TV shows to sports and advertising.” Cameron thinks that in the next 5 years it will go from the big screen to Video, and then to computers, desktop and laptop, and then to smartphones. Sony has already introduced 3D laptops in its Spring dealer shows, and 3D smartphones are already starting to appear.

Where 3D is already quickly establishing itself is gaming, with Sony, Nintendo, and all the other gaming console manufacturers embracing it with open arms. But that’s not a subject for this site, and lots of info can be found elsewhere on the web.

Getting back to HDTVs, here’s some information we gleaned about manufacturers’ plans: “LG, Samsung, Sony & Philips intend to increase their 3D TV offering with plans to make 3D TV sales account for over 50% of their respective TV distribution offering by 2012. It is expected that the screens will use a mixture of technologies until there is standardization across the industry.[16] Samsung offers the LED 7000, LCD 750, PDP 7000 TV sets and the Blu-ray 6900.[17]”

But 3D is not without its detractors. A Chicago Sun-Times column by film critic Roger Ebert, quotes film editor Walter Murch (Julia, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Part III, The English Patient). Murch is a very highly regarded film editor (in fact, a star among them after Charles Koppelman’s book, Behind The Seen, published by New Riders Press). He argues that 3D does not and cannot work:

“I edited one 3D film back in the 1980’s — “Captain Eo” — and also noticed that horizontal movement will strobe much sooner in 3D than it does in 2D. This was true then, and it is still true now. It has something to do with the amount of brain power dedicated to studying the edges of things. The more conscious we are of edges, the earlier strobing kicks in.

“The biggest problem with 3D, though, is the “convergence/focus” issue. A couple of the other issues — darkness and “smallness” — are at least theoretically solvable. But the deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen — say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what.”

“But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focused and converged at the same point.”  That is, says Murch, (as the column/blog is titled), Why 3D Doesn’t Work And Never Will. Case Closed.

This latter phenomenon described by Murch and relayed by Ebert is probably what causes the eyestrain, headaches, and other viewing fatigue effects that so many viewers complain about. One of my friends in the A/V industry noted after a recent trade show, that he couldn’t stand to watch more than 5 minutes of any 3D demo. Could it be that 3D fatigue might become the newest medical condition for videophiles? We will have to keep an eye on this, if not on the 3D screen.

But let’s get back to broadcast TV. Blu-ray has adopted a single standard, and it doesn’t matter for the movies because it’s a single experience where the film is directly delivered to the watcher; that is, there is no additional delivery/decoding process to the viewer beyond the glasses. But broadcast HDTV 3D is another kettle of fish, with numerous standards of varying compatibility in the delivery process to your home. Here’s Wikipedia, again about TV formats:

  • “3D-TV connected to HD STB for broadcast 3D-TV.
  • 3D-TV receiving a 3D-TV broadcast directly via a built-in tuner and decoder.

For the two broadcast scenarios above, initial requirements are for Pay-TV broadcasters to deliver 3D-TV services over existing HD broadcasting infrastructures, and to use existing receivers (with firmware upgrade, as required) to deliver 3D content to 3D-TV sets, via an HDMI or equivalent connection, if needed. This is termed Frame Compatible. There are a range of Frame Compatible formats. They include the Side by Side (SbS) format, the Top and Bottom (TaB) format, and others.”

Polaraized passive 3D glasses

I don’t see the need to cover all of them, but a good example is a company called NEXT3D, who recently announced their collaboration with Turner Broadcasting: “Unlike current 3DTV broadcasting methods, which squeeze the 3D image into a single 2D image frame, NEXT3D’s patent-pending technology enables stereoscopic 3D video encoding and delivery in full high-definition 1080p. Reducing the amount of data to deliver a high definition 3D image by up to 75%, NEXT3D encoding reduces the bandwidth needed for home-delivery without sacrificing image quality. The ground-breaking technology also retains and enhances image details, critical to pristine 3D HD.”For years, I have been living with both satellite (Bell TV)  and off-air through a Zenith  HD tuner/decoder. The technology of the latter is built into virtually all TVs of any size sold today. The satellite TV is compressed because of bandwidth limitations, as can be seen in a direct video comparison. The off-air HDTV picture is just slightly sharper and more natural than that from satellite. How this new encoding will affect all this is a big question yet to be answered. What is known is that any encode system requires a decode stage. If it’s at the cable or satellite broadcaster, then the limitations still apply in getting the signal to your 3D HDTV; the picture can only be as good as the final transmission stage. Even off-air reception cannot exceed 1080i, and probably, the 2 3D signals for two eyes will end up as 480i each. Well, what if you have a NEXT3D decoder at home? Well, it is  another box, and, to me, that’s worrisome. As I noted, from cable or satellite, the signal will be doubly compressed. Even off-air reception will have a new layer of compression, and you’ll  have to add a NEXT3D decoder box at home. Of course, you’ll also need to have a 3D-ready HDTV. Is this really going to fly? Didn’t you blow the bucks on the HDTV and Blu-ray player already?

3D Broadcast chain
And what about the glasses? The bigger the family, the more bucks spent on eye wear. Apparently, the less expensive passive glasses don’t provide quite the same realism as the active ones, which switch to match the interpolated left and right images. But these glasses are heavier and less comfortable, and there’s always the question of battery life, especially if you forget to turn them off between uses. I suppose the ideal solution would be to have rechargeable glasses that could be left in a charging cradle when not used. But in an average family does that mean 4 pairs? And how many family members already wear vision correction lenses to watch TV? That would include all of my family.In my own recent experience, watching a quite large 92″ (diagonal) VUTEC  screen from an Anthem LTX-500V  LCOS HD projector, I find that any scene with movement, especially a sweeping aerial shot, has quite palpable depth, which I have confirmed on numerous occasions by closing one eye, which makes the sense of depth disappear. Personally, I’m not that keen on upgrading (if that’s, in fact, what it is) to 3D. And my advice to consumers is, if you are lured by 3D, at least wait until the broadcast standards are sorted out.

I’m going to conclude by quoting a warning from the Samsung  web site:”Viewing TV using the 3D function [:] VIEWER WARNING: Pregnant women, the elderly, children under age six and those with a family history of epilepsy or stroke should refrain from 3D television viewing. If you experience any of the following symptoms while viewing 3D images, discontinue viewing: altered vision; lightheadedness; dizziness; involuntary eye or muscle twitching; and/or disorientation. For the complete warning guide visit 3D TV.”  Enough said. In sum, to get yourself into 3D HDTV, you’ll need a new HDTV set or projector; whatever compatible set-top box follows a harmonized 3D broadcast standard; a 3D Blu-ray player; and full 3D HDMI connectivity. Sounds like rich early-adopter city to me.

Andrew Marshall

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One Response to “Audio Ideas: Is 3D For Real, Or Just Another Gimmick? And Is It Dangerous For Some Viewers?”

  1. Ron W c-unknown Says:

    It is interesting to note that with all the hype about the future of 3D, there are at least two products about to become available, one by a company called “Video Innovations” from Florida who is about about to start shipping a number of products that can produce a 3D picture from any 3D source that can be shown on a NON-3D capable monitor or projector. In addition to the converter, it uses an emitter and RF active shutter glasses which are rechargeable. Apparently it can convert any of the three major systems, i. e. frame-packed from 3D Blu-Ray discs, top and bottom and side by side which is more common from off-air Cable/Sat HD programming. There is also another unit from “HDFury” coming a little later this year that will ultimately have similar features.

    Of course, until the reviews are in, we won’t know how effective and reliable these units will be, however, from all the early hype these could potentially provide a considerably less expensive way of the consumer entering the world of 3D utilizing their existing monitors or projectors as long as they are HD capable with HDMI inputs making it unnecessary to go out and buy one of the newer and more expensive 3D capable displays.

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