Glasses-Free 3D for UHDTV?

Glasses-Free 3D for UHDTV-4K

Do you believe that 3D has a future in home entertainment? I do, thanks to a demonstration I recently witnessed at the U.S. headquarters of Stream TV Networks, located in Philadelphia, PA. In the back of a nondescript, third-floor office, I saw high-definition, glasses-free 3D—dubbed Ultra-D—on a big screen, and it looked great. In fact, the 3D screen I previewed looked fantastic—good enough to give me goose bumps during a 3D demonstration of Life of Pi.

Leo Riley, the VP of Stream TV, gave a full demonstration of the product, which is now at the pre-production stage. Stream TV created a proprietary system for autostereoscopic 3D viewing—that means glasses-free 3D. The panel itself was a 50″ LED-backlit LCD UHDTV from Chinese maker Hisense, a pre-production unit that offered a glimpse of a product that should be on store shelves in the fourth quarter of 2013. Riley was keen to note that Hisense prices its products very aggressively, and the final retail pricing of the new UHDTVs will reflect that. Expect a 50″, 58″, and 65″ model sporting the new technology.

One of the most exciting features of Ultra-D is how the technology is screen-agnostic. What makes it work is the abundance of pixels that UHD panels provide, which is why Ultra-D equipped TVs will be available soon, now that UHDTVs are gaining in popularity and prices are dropping. There was even mention of a 31″ UHD Ultra-D computer monitor that is almost ready. I plan to re-visit the Stream TV Networks office when that screen arrives.

If the future brings UHD OLED to market, Ultra-D will work with this technology—albeit at OLED prices. All this talk of tablets and TVs and technology led me to ask Riley, “What about projectors, could this ever work for a projector-based home theater?” His response—Stream TV Networks plans to tackle holographic display, which is where all display technology is ultimately heading.

The future plans and applications for Ultra-D technology was interesting enough, but what happened next was more profound. I went from “interested” to “believer” in no time flat—just a few minutes watching a UHD Ultra-D TV demo was enough to erase any skepticism. Upon seeing a demo of Avengers, my first comment was, “If this is how 3D was, I’d watch 3D all the time.”

As impressive as the image looked, I noticed a few glitches in the 3D rendition while watching some complex action in the final battle scene of The Avengers. It was just a tiny bit of fuzziness here and there, which I figured was acceptable considering how great the overall presentation looked.

That’s when Riley dropped the bomb! We had not been watching The Avengers in 3D. The Ultra-D system was doing its own real-time 3D conversion of the movie, and it was doing a great job—clearly better than other 2D-to-3D converters I’ve seen in the past. Then, he switched the movie over to actual 3D, and suddenly the performance was perfect. Rock-solid, true 3D that I could simply see with no weirdness at all. Another aspect of the presentation that totally blew me away was the brightness. The late Roger Ebert would often lament that 3D meant watching a dim movie. I wish the man had lived to see Ultra-D, because it is a revelation—exactly as bright and vibrant as a 2D presentation.

I could not get any tech-spec details about the panel itself, except that it was not edge-lit LCD, but rather backlit. I think that approach really helped with the overall image quality—the range from black to white was very impressive, and uniformity was notably exceptional. With Ultra-D, any sort of artifacts associated with edge-lit UHDTVs would be painfully obvious. As impressed as I was with the Avengers demo, I really wanted to see something mind-blowing. We settled on the flying-fish scene from Life of Pi, because it pioneered the use of 3D animation that breaks out of the letterbox region—an effect that helped the 3D spectacle earn the 2013 Oscar for visual effects.

With letterbox bars on the screen, the panel maintained its deep blacks and screen uniformity. As the scene began, with the first couple of fish appearing, I began to appreciate something Riley had described to me. The Ultra-D processor is capable of combining the information in the full-HD left and right views on a 3D Blu-ray. Since these two images contain different visual information—2 million pixels each—the Ultra-D process is able to interpolate the textures to achieve a higher visual resolution. The two images become one scene, and on a UHDTV, the viewer actually sees more detail watching an Ultra-D presentation of a 3D BD, than is contained in the equivalent 1080p 2D presentation.



The added detail afforded by Ultra-D was on full display as the fish started flying and ultimately appeared to leap right out of the screen into the room. I have never seen anything like it, and I got goose bumps. That’s because I felt—at that moment—a thrill that reminded me of being a kid at an amusement park, or at the premier of the greatest movie ever. I was entranced by the detail, the realism, and most important, the viewing comfort.

As a final test, I turned the room light all the way off and then all the way up. Image quality remained excellent, regardless of ambient light levels. This is glasses-free 3D that is watchable in a sunlit room or a darkened home theater. I also found that off-angle viewing still maintained the 3D effect, and viewing distance was not an issue—whether I was six feet away or fifteen-plus feet away, the 3D effect was impressive.

While I moved around the room on foot to check viewing angles, I noticed that the 3D image exhibited a minor flutter, a visual pulsation of sorts. That flutter is a known side effect of transitioning between “viewing cones,” the means by which autostereoscopic screens deliver discrete information to each eye. It was only noticeable when moving around; all stationary viewing positions yielded exceptional 3D.

When the demo ended, I could not help but think that I had just glimpsed the future of UHDTV. Now, when I watch my TV at home, its “flatness” is painfully obvious, and seemingly unnecessary. However, my current HDTV has 3D capability, so the real issue is wearing 3D glasses and the dim image that creates.

From what I have seen and heard, Stream TV Networks and its Ultra-D technology is ready for prime time—as in mass production—and should be coming to store shelves sooner than I anticipated. According to Riley, there is much more to come—so stay tuned for more news about this very impressive 3D-display technology.

Source: |  Mark Henninger



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