Capturing 3-D: Philips’s WOWvx screens require specially created videos that record two frames for each scene. The first frame contains ordinary color information. The second frame contains depth information for each pixel, with white denoting foreground and black indicating deep background. Software and hardware built into the screens then use this information to create differing versions of images as the video plays and send them to the display. In a final step, lenses atop the screen project these slightly-differing images so that the left and right eyes see different versions, creating the illusion of depth.
Then, special PC-based hardware and software–housed in the display itself–processes the pair of images as the video is played. The information in the second frame is used to transform the original color frame into nine separate images, each slightly offset from the last, as though the camera had been moved a few inches to the side each time. All nine are then sent to the screen.
To allow viewers to perceive these images, the LCD screens are overlaid with three-pixel-wide cylindrical lenses that direct the different images into side-by-side paths. A nearby viewer will see one of these images with each eye–the first and third, or third and fifth, for example–thus producing the illusion of image depth.
The multiple images allow viewers to walk around the viewing area–a cone about 20 degrees wide–without disturbing the 3-D illusion, says Philips product manager Erik van der Tol. This cone is duplicated several times on each screen, further widening the 3-D viewing area.
The number of content producers working with the format is small, but growing. Kuk creates live-action stereoscopic films, using two cameras to film. Others, such as the London-based SquareZero, work primarily with computer graphics, which requires a less specialized production process.
“You do get really good depth perception,” says SquareZero head of animation Olly Tyler. “The image seems to go into the screen and come out of it.”
As with any new technology, there are glitches. With the company’s 42-inch screens, the 3-D effect works most effectively only up to a distance of about 12 feet, and if you view the screen at the boundary between the three “cones,” you experience garbled images. In addition, the quality of ordinary two-dimensional images on the screens is diminished. Finally, a 42-inch screen will set you back $12,000 (prices on the new 52-inch and 22-inch models being released next week have not yet been specified).
Still, while today the company is focusing squarely on the advertising and display market, it does have its eye on the consumer market. Researchers are working on expanding and smoothing the viewing area and on improving the two-dimensional viewing quality in order to make the screens entirely backward-compatible with ordinary video.
“Look a couple of years ahead, and I think this will be an acceptable technology for the home,” says van der Tol. “The Hollywood scene is definitely interested.” Philips is not alone; Sharp Electronics, along with a handful of small companies such as Dimension Technologies and Alioscopy, offer competing products.