A combination of factors means the time could finally be right for TV to break out into another dimension.
The reality of the 3D experience has come a long way from the red/green glasses, worn by cinema audiences back in the 1950s. Now it is closer to the vision of 3D imaging typically associated with science fiction. Companies such as Philips and SeeReal Technologies are creating viable applications for TVs, PC monitors and even projectors.
Many market players are touting 3D as the next technological leap after high definition (HD), and Hollywood studios are already shooting some of their bigger productions in 3D.
"Offering the consumer a compelling 3D experience is a strategic target for nearly all major participants in the imaging industry," claims Jörg Röder, head of administration at SeeReal. He believes that 3D is generally recognised as the next big thing by content, games and applications providers.
In fact, the high-tech economies of Japan, Korea and Taiwan have highlighted 3D technologies of national strategic importance and have formed international alliances to realise the potential of delivering 3D on a variety of media channels including the Web, TV and even smaller displays such as media players and phones.
Additionally, the European Union currently sponsors large programmes and consortia in both stereography and holography - the MUTED (Multi-User 3D Television Display) and ATTEST (Advanced Three-Dimensional Television System Technologies) programmes.
Thus, Röder argues that the transition from 2D to 3D will encompass the entire market, just like the migration from black and white to colour, but, due to the shortening of product cycles, it will happen much faster - perhaps within the typical ten-year replacement cycle for domestic TVs.
Although the various players are exploring different technologies, none of these is new. For example, Philips' research is based on lenticular imaging, which is not dissimilar to traditional lenticular printing - a technique used to produce still pictures with the illusion of depth or movement dependant on the angle at which it is viewed. But transferring this technique to moving pictures has been problematic.
However, innovations in areas such as digital signal processes, powerful video processes and the availability of HD liquid crystal displays and plasma flat panels now make it possible to introduce glasses-free 3D displays into the business and consumer market.
"The complete TV creation-distribution-visualisation chain was taken into account in the design of a new 3D standard," remarks Hans Driessen, senior communications manager, Philips. "This means that the new 3D format should be able to be distributed over existing infrastructures, and that 3D content could be recreated easily for our legacy of 2D video, animations and games."
Perception in 3D is achieved because the left eye catches a slightly different image from the right eye, and the brain combines the two to create depth. The 3D glasses solution filters out two broadcast images to the left and right eye.
Philips' technology, entitled WOWvx, uses an array of microlenses (lenticulars) on the LCD panel to send different images to the left and right eye. It actually sends out nine different images so that multiple people are able to comfortably move their head while maintaining the 3D experience.
Another technique - holography - has its origins buried 60 years in the past, but two barriers have proved tricky to overcome. The first has been that of insufficient display resolution. In order to achieve a viewing angle of 60° in holographic displays, a pixel pitch of about one wavelength is required; for a 47in display, that corresponds to approximately 250,000 times current HDTV standards.
The second problem has been inadequate data volume and processing requirements. Computation of each pixel's value requires significantly more steps than for a 2D display. Multiplied by the greatly increased pixel quantity required, colossal computational power is needed.
Real-time video quality holograms would therefore theoretically require up to several hundred petaflops - where one petaflop represents a thousand trillion floating point operations per second. To date, only a handful of super computers have passed the one petaflop milestone.
However, as time has moved on, so has technology, and SeeReal has developed tech-niques to overcome these two challenges.The company's 'Viewing Window' concept limits pixel size to levels already known for HDTV applications. This, in combination with a real-time tracking system, eliminates superfluous elements and at the same time significantly reduces the requirements for real-time computing solutions.
"The new concept of limiting holographic imaging to the Viewing Windows is applicable to direct view - such as TVs - as well as to projection imaging," explains Röder.
The issue of content
Without the creation of 3D content, the uptake of 3D displays would be miniscule. Therefore, companies are working on methods to easily churn out new 3D content. For example, Autodesk is currently concentrating on developing software that allows for the creation of stereoscopic content.
"Our tools provide solutions across the line for digital content creation (DCC), and are in many cases at the core of the production of stereo content," explains Sebastian Sylwan, senior film and television industry manager at the company.
Sylwan believes that anyone making stereo content faces many issues as they get deeper into the detail, as some processes from traditional content-creation become very high-maintenance in stereo production. These range from the mere technical (such as synchronising the two images and correcting lens distortion coherently for both cameras) to the purely creative ones (editing the depth script, adjusting hyper or ipo-stereoscopy on different planes of the image, compositing, grading). Stereo production therefore blurs the lines separating traditional DCC processes, changes the way some creative decisions are made and adds new ones to the mix.
"We need to create a new grammar for stereo content and help the creatives deliver their message without being bogged by technical issues, and this is what we are currently concentrating on," adds Sylwan.
So, technologies are now available. SeeReal believes we will see the first products using its technology on the market within two years. Content creation tools are in development to make 3D imagery much more common. But the big question is over what kinds of application will best suit 3D - and whether consumers really want it.
Manufacturers like Philips have already found a business interest for 3D displays in outdoor display advertising to attract the attention of the general public - and also for more serious applications where 3D data visualisation has the potential to bring things to life, such as geographic or medical imaging. Consumer applications may also be around in a few years, and research has shown that there already exists a consumer interest.
"Consumer testing showed that viewers considered the video and games more immersive and entertaining," notes Driessen who argues that when consumers see a clear benefit they will embrace a new technology rapidly.
For example, the change from cathode ray tube to flat panel LCD went much faster than the industry anticipated. This could well be the case with 3D displays. The potential of Philips' 3D WOW displays to anyone lucky enough to have seen a demonstration is self evident.
Further down the line, display manufacturers are working on resolutions of approximately two million pixels - four times the current full HD standard. These extra pixels can be used for higher resolution 3D images and more views for a comfortable 3D experience.
Driessen concludes: "I also think that huge innovation will come from the content industry creating specific 3D content. I am amazed by the continuous progress in this area; specific 3D animations or 3D video shot with stereo camera set-ups. Creative directors and producers have now a complete new dimension to explore."