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Glasses Not Required

New software may bring 3D television into your living room.

Aside from a few 1950s-era B-movies and, of course Jaws 3-D, nobody’s put much muscle into developing 3D entertainment. Despite all the technical alchemy, digital eye candy like Attack of the Clones and The Matrix exist in a flat, two-dimensional world. Maybe not much longer. A number of companies are betting heavily that there is a bright future for adding dimension to the boob tube.

Three-dimensional displays already exist today, manufactured and used by a select few. Rochester NY-based DTI, for example, builds PC displays that use patterns behind the screen to make certain pixels visible only to the viewer’s right eye, and others to the left, creating a hologram-like 3D image. San Rafael, CA-based StereoGraphics manufactures LCD displays in which miniature lenses, each displaying either a right or left eye image, are arrayed behind the screen. But presently, the only interest in these pricey displays comes from corporate customersadvertisers, museums, and life-sciences companies interested in sophisticated medical imaging.

For the consumer, hardly any 3D content actually exists, and that’s because creating 3D films is a long and expensive process that can require up to nine different cameras per scene. And with nothing to show, there’s little incentive for major electronics companies to manufacture 3D TVs on a mass scale. One software firm called DDD, based in Santa Monica, CA, is attempting to fix this chicken-and-egg problem two ways: first, by converting existing 2D films into 3D, then compressing the 3D data so that it can be broadcast via existing technology.

DDD takes an existing 2D film and creates what it calls a depth map for each frame. In this processthe initial part of which is done by a graphic artistthe first and last frames of a particular scene are coded with various shades of gray to indicate distance. For example, if a person is standing in a field, the person will be white, the horizon black, and everything between will be a different shade of grey depending on distance from the viewer. This depth data is then passed into an algorithm that learns the relation between each object in the scene and the viewer and can then create a depth map for all intermediate frames. When the process is complete all 3D information is compressed, leaving the 2D data intact. When the show is either broadcast or the viewer pops in the DVD, a set-top box or piece of hardware extracts and decompresses this depth information and formats it to the particular 3D display the viewer is using.

“We really only add about 4 percent of info to the original 2D image,” says Phil Harman, DDD’s chief technical officer, “Fortunately, the digital television format we use, MPEG, has provision to carry additional info to the viewer.”

Currently, a StereoGraphics LCD display that can handle this sort of software feature can cost up to $25,000.00hardly a price tag to woo the consumer. But DDD CEO Chris Yewdall anticipates that in about five years these 3D displays will only be about 20 percent more than their 2D counterparts. “It will probably cost less than a million to convert a feature length film into 3D,” continues Yewdall. “And suddenly you’ve given the consumer an additional reason to spend 20 bucks on that DVD and add it to their collection again. But that’s predicated on the availability of many 3D displays.”

According to Pat Dunn, director of technology at DisplaySearch, an Austin, TX-based research and consulting firm, that’s not all that is needed. “The question is, would you be able to get everyone to sign up for this, the film industry, the television industry, and display manufacturers? What would the cost burden be, and is the movie industry willing to shoulder that in order to have this technology?”

James Mitchell, technology analyst for London-based Old Mutual Securities, sees a potential problem on the hardware side as well. Many of the leading consumer electronics companies, like Sanyo, Samsung, and Phillips Electronics, are working on 3D televisions. And even though they’ve been relatively silent about these products, Mitchell suspects that consumer interest may not be enough to offset prohibitive production costs. “That’s the real issue. The manufacturers bear a lot more risk than the studios do.”

Yewdall is confident that 3D will reach viewersperhaps as soon as 2007just as color did in the 60s and high-definition promises to do today. The question remains whether people will buy it.

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