Wednesday, September 16, 2009

3-D is Coming

The fact that we have two eyes on the front of our heads means that we’re intended to see things in three dimensions (3-D). But so much of what we do every day is in two dimensions (2-D).

From books to computers, to movies and television, they’re all in 2-D. But we live in a 3-D world.

While making things in 3-D isn’t hard, especially if they’re tangible, such as statues, automobiles, dishes and furniture, the challenge is to simulate 3-D with technology.

My first recollection of 3-D was with the old ViewMaster discs. They consist of a plastic viewer and some discs with stereo images on it. By pressing a lever, the disc rotates and a new set of stereo images appears. I saw a lot of Disney stories that way as a kid and was fascinated by how it worked.

My next recollection of 3-D was with the books and movies in which one wears the red and green glasses and then, if you squint just right, you kind of see something in 3-D. The colors are all wrong, but there’s a sense of three dimensions.

Another technology that’s been around for a long time are sheets of lenticular paper which include a number of images that present themselves as one’s location in front of the paper changes. The classic example is the postcard of a woman who winks at you as the card is tilted.

In most instances, 3-D technology requires the user to wear some special glasses or use some type of equipment to make the 3-D images clear.

Most recently, there have been some pretty good 3-D movies. I recall taking my daughter to see the Hannah Montana 3-D movie. It was quite good. The glasses used two pieces of polarizing film to separate the two images on the screen. While darkening the screen a bit, the polarizing filters leave the colors substantially intact.

Another technology that works well is to have glasses with “shutters” that “blink” in sync with different frames being displayed on a screen. If this happens fast enough, the effect is not really noticeable. The challenge is to synchronize dozens or hundreds of inexpensive glasses to the system displaying the images.

These glasses with shutters work remarkably well, especially in keeping the brightness and color true.

The next frontier is, of course, home theatre, where people continue to spend much of their entertainment time. With image refresh speeds on current TVs being quite high, the ability to have “left eye/right eye” frames is becoming practical.

Another challenge beyond just the technology is the programming that will need to change. The addition of a third dimension could change how shows are thought of and produced.

For example, 3-D works best up-close (5-15 feet). Three-dimensional movies of the Grand Canyon have a different visual impact than cards being dealt at a poker game or a camera in a race car passing other cars.

The addition of 3-D to movies adds quite literally another dimension to the producer’s and director’s toolbox of how to communicate.

In the business world, 3-D will add new ways for business people to communicate. Much as color printers and video projectors changed the way people communicate, the addition of 3-D technology will also have an impact in our offices. Expect financial reports and projections to be far more visual and creative services far more impactful.

Given the current commercial 3-D offerings in the local cineplex, I anticipate consumer grade technologies within the next couple of years. And this time, I don’t expect 3-D to be relegated to another parlor curiosity. This time 3-D will become mainstream.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 16 September 2009.
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