HDI headquarters walkthrough: details galore on the new face of in-home 3D

Call it an inexplicable fascination, or call it all-out geek lust over a screen with three digits in the "diagonal screen size" specification field -- either way, we had little choice but to shuttle over to HDI's nondescript Los Gatos, California headquarters in order to check out what even Steve Wozniak has been quoted as saying is the best 3D solution out there. While stationed on the west coast this week for GDC, we grabbed a camera and bolted down the 280 in order to get a sneak peek at the aforesaid firm, a tight-knit startup that currently has prototype displays in production and plans for far more. We've heard plenty through the grapevine, but we set out to get our questions answered directly, and possibly even provide some insight that has yet to be made available to the public thus far.

For those unaware, HDI's flagship product is a planned 103-inch 3D HDTV that uses a proprietary technology in order to showcase content in the third dimension (or 2D, if you'd like). We sat down with Chris Stuart (Director of Technology) and Edmund Sandberg (Chief Technology Officer) in order to get an overview of the tech, set the story straight in regard to pricing and availability, and dig in a little deeper on its plans for distribution and expansion. We also plopped down in front of the company's prototype 97-inch set and a 46-inch 3D LCD that has remained mostly a myth up until now, and we've certainly got plenty to share in terms of impressions. If you're eager to learn more (and take a behind-the-scenes look at a television R&D lab), give that 'Read More' link a gentle press.

Company overview

We should start by mentioning that HDI's 3D solution actually is different than what's already out there in the market, as it uses a laser-based projection solution along with a magical mix of optics and LCoS in order to drive a gargantuan 103-inch panel. The glasses required for use are passive in nature, with the outfit's CTO expressing a distinct distaste for active-shutter alternatives that he claims creates discomfort after extended viewing. We were able to take a look at the actual laser array and the rest of the guts that make everything with the set tick (shown in the gallery below), with the company confessing that the actual laser array was the most expensive part in the whole equation (upwards of $20,000 in extremely small quantities, but far cheaper when produced in bulk). In short, HDI was created from the desire to have a different approach to 3D; Edmund noted that most consumers only view active-shutter solutions in stores for a couple of minutes before being impressed enough to make a purchasing decision, but few actually hang around in Best Buy to watch a two hour feature on them. He personally cannot stand the "flicker effect" that many folks see from the battery-powered glasses that are required for this (admittedly inexpensive to implement) solution, and he claims that HDI's passive method is far easier on the eye (and brain, for that matter).

Pricing and distribution details on 103-inch HDI 3D HDTV

Before breaking into our own take on his claims and HDI's technology, we'd like to share a few exclusive details about the company's product line. As of today, a grand total of three 103-inch, HDI-branded 3D televisions are in production, and all three are decidedly "prototype builds." These three have actually been purchased by eager consumers overseas who were willing to pay a stiff premium for early access, with an understanding that certain kinks may be worked out in the final model. Early this summer, 10 to 12 more sets will hit the production line, with this batch reserved for select studios and offices where powerful people in the industry will be able to access and demo them with ease. Around 5 to 6 months from now, the company will nail down the last great hurdle before mass commercialization can occur: a custom curved optics solution that will bend and direct laser light within the 10-inch deep cabinet that the 1080p 103-inch panel will reside in. Once that's nailed down, HDI has full intentions of mashing "go" on mass production, though we're told that those final builds will not ship to distributors (and in turn, customers) until "Q2 or Q3 2011." We were told that earlier reports of a June 2010 launch were taken out of context, and that only the aforementioned trio of beta versions would have a remote shot at shipping out within a few months from now.

HDI's custom laser solution

Specification breakdown

Turns out, the company actually had advanced conversations with many of the mainstays in the television industry, with initial hopes being to license their 3D solution for use in existing sets from the Sonys, Toshibas and Sharps of the world. Curiously enough, no one was interested in ponying up, with most of them seeming to think that they could implement a similar enough solution to appease the masses without forking over additional cash to someone else (read: HDI). After that rude awakening, HDI decided to simply start a TV company, with the upcoming 103-incher to boast HDI branding and all. We learned that the outfit will be aiming the set specifically at high-end, custom install users as well as corporate boardrooms, studios, sports bars and pretty much anyone who would consider CEDIA their favorite trade show of the year. As for distributors? You can expect to see the set offered in high end AV retailers (Fry's was casually mentioned), as well as independent custom install shops. Because the device is designed to hang flush on a wall, we learned that the first units will ship with a breakout box (similar to Runco's 70-inch Crystal Series CX-70DH), putting an array of inputs in your AV rack rather than on the panel itself. When talking specifics, we gleaned that the box would accommodate component, VGA and HDMI, while DVI and DisplayPort were still being mulled as possibilities.

We also found that the unit will ship with a built-in 2D-to-3D processor that's said to be far superior to solutions that are on the market today; put simply, the TV will accept conventional 2D programming and convert it on-the-fly to 3D. Granted, the effect won't be nearly as surreal compared to material that's shot and produced for 3D viewing, but it's a nice bonus nonetheless. The final tidbits that we had yet to hear prior to our visit had to do with audio and accessories; HDI is planning to ship the set with an integrated soundbar that spans from one side to the other using a litany of drivers to create faux surround sound. They wouldn't go so far as to confirm an embedded wireless chip for attaching a cord-free subwoofer in the future, but they did mention that a Wireless HD solution could eventually be utilized to cut the tether between the breakout box and the panel itself. As a bonus? The team is considering the inclusion of a DIY 3D camcorder, which would give owners the ability to shoot and create their own 3D content right out of the box. The mockup shown to us in Los Gatos was little more than two JVC camcorders mounted on a straight bar in order to shoot the same thing a few inches apart, but obviously the sky's the limit in terms of implementing this kind of peripheral bundle. Oh, and given that you're dying for a price right about now, we were able to confirm that the final 103-inch set -- complete with a soundbar and possibly with a 3D camcorder -- would cost between $10,000 and $15,000. That ain't cheap, but HDI isn't planning on selling these to Average Joes and Janes. And when you consider that Panasonic's (2D only) 103-inch TH-103PF10UK currently sells for around $40,000 and Bang & Olufsen's version of the same thing (dubbed BeoVision 4) runs just under $95,000, HDI's alternative suddenly feels like a veritable bargain.

Front projector and 46-inch 3D LCD

As for the rest of its product line? The company admitted that its projection technology could easily be wrapped into a front projector, and it seemed to indicate that an overhead version would ship at about the same time as the TV. The primary difference here (besides the drastic change in form factor) is the installation difficulty; the 3D HDTV could theoretically be installed sans any help from outside parties, while HDI will recommend installations for the front projector due to the requisite screen that will be bundled with it. We weren't given specifics surrounding front projector pricing, only that it would be "somewhat higher" due to the de-speckling screen that would be required for use. Finally, we saw the only two 46-inch HDI 3D HDTV prototypes in existence, and while Edmund and Chris both seemed to think that the effect was optimal at 60-inches and above, we got the impression that an LCD version in the 46- to 70-inch range would also be hitting shelves in mid-to-late 2011.

HDI 3D impressions

So, onto impressions. We've witnessed 3D from a variety of sources, be it in a RealD theater, NVIDIA's active-shutter 3D Vision gaming or Sony's own active solution. Without a doubt, HDI's 3D HDTV was the best in-home 3D product that we've had the pleasure of viewing. Granted, a lot of the wow-factor comes from seeing content that was specifically designed for 3D viewing on a display that's simply enormous, but we'd say that HDI has the immersive factor nailed. We watched a variety of clips for a solid half-hour, and while very slight eye strain was present at times, it certainly wasn't anything out of the ordinary. We also mentioned to Chris our desire for 3D glasses that swallowed more of our face (we know, we know...) in order to prevent us from seeing the rims of the spectacles in our periphery, and he acknowledged that the company was looking into various designs that could utilize larger lenses for those bothered by the frames. We took the opportunity to walk all around the display, and even standing a foot away from the screen, the effect was still present. Viewing angles were as good as we'd seen on a panel, with the 3D effect following us (sans blur and artifacts, mind you) as we walked from one extreme edge to the other. Of course, not everything was perfect; minor ghosting and blurring was present on certain clips, but overall, the images popping off the screen were striking. We can't help but think back to the first time we witnessed Mitsubishi's LaserVue HDTV -- to this day, that remains the most visually stunning 2D television that we've seen, so it's pretty safe to say that we're fans of this whole laser thing.

Gaming on HDI's 3D solution

As enjoyable as watching 3D content was, it simply didn't hold a candle to the experience of playing Avatar: The Game in 3D, at 1080p, with all details cranked. Naturally, you'd need a Core i7 machine with a fairly potent GPU in order to pull something similar off, but if you're springing for a $15,000 television, you've probably got an Alienware or two that you're using to prop your feet up at night. The amount of depth and the accuracy at which the game was rendered was nothing short of stunning. Cruising around beneath rock formations and watching armies of enemies congregate in the background provided a whole new feel to the game, and if executed well on the developer's end, we could totally see this taking off far quicker than mainstream 3D television viewing.

46-inch 3D experience vs. 97-inch 3D experience

If you're curious about how the 46-inch set compared to the 97-inch prototype, here's the honest truth: it's dramatically less immersive, and is more of a nice addition than a completely new experience. The big boy also has the advantage of shooting 1080p to each eye, whereas the 46-inch LCD uses a modified polarization technique that cuts down on the perceived resolution. From afar, the 46-inch set was delightful in its own right, but again, that's only if you're actually okay with donning 3D glasses to enjoy your programming. If you're no fan of strapping something on your face in order to see things differently on your set, this solution -- nor any other, really -- will change your mind.

Technicalities and software plans

We'll close by explaining how exactly the 97-inch prototype was setup, and how that'll differ from the completely enclosed 103-inch version that's set to ship to the earliest of adopters in prototype form later this summer. Put simply, the screen you see hanging on the wall here has a massive cutout behind it leading into the next room; within that room was a box of lasers that were being channeled via fiber optic cabling to a projection box. The projection was beamed out onto a substantially large mirror, which then hit the rear of the screen and produced the image that we witnessed in the demo room. Essentially, this is an exploded, full-scale version of the miniaturized and optimized process that'll occur within a 10-inch chassis on the final build. And as for those GUI shots below? That's HDI's first attempt at crafting a media portal that would enable buyers to easily find (and even upload or sell) 3D material, and we were duly impressed with just how slick it looked. Even the XBMC-based beta was web-connected, with Chris noting that it could easily be shaped to pull down web content feeds or RSS information. Plans about including this at launch are still in the works, but giving people an avenue for procuring tough-to-find 3D content from the get-go sure sounds like a bright idea from our perspective.

Oh, and one last thing -- if you've got your heart set on owning one of these monsters, and you're in no position to wait until the fall of next year to take delivery, you can purchase a fully functional beta build right now. All that's required is two months worth of patience, a valid shipping address and around $100,000. Think we're kidding? Give 'em a ring, and have that Centurion Card number ready to rattle off.