Switched On: The old adventures of new 3D

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Switched On The Old Adventures of New 3D

In the unmarked office of 3-D Vision, Inc., you can see a television or PC display a videogame or movie with a convincing stereoscopic effect. That might not seem very unique. However, the television is a CRT from the 1990s, the video game is Super Mario for the Nintendo 64 and the movie is The Wizard of Oz, made in 1939.

Despite the growth in 3D television sales, the requirement to wear 3D glasses has loomed as one of the most significant barriers to adoption. 3-D Vision's technology still requires glasses, at least for now. However, with some caveats, it overcomes some of the other, oft-overlooked barriers to 3D adoption by creating 3D video from 2D content on 2D (or 3D) displays. On televisions, this is achieved via a small set-top box -- a prototype of which approaches the size and noise level of a mini-fridge -- that plugs into the video source and the TV and converts the video in real-time with virtually no latency. The box should be available early next year.

3-D Vision's technology works by extracting 3D data in the video as opposed to having humans make judgment calls, as is the case with converted 3D movies. It is impressive in both the quality of the 3D effect and the range of devices with which it can work. These include virtually any video source although there won't be much to work with in, say, 2D games from the Super Nintendo era or even today's talking-head news programs. Rendered animation shows, however, like Thomas and Friends, work well. As for output devices, even analog tube-based televisions can display convincing 3D content from 2D films, although the system generates a fair amount of flicker as it struggles to overcome the low refresh rate and interlacing of the once-ubiquitous technology.

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It can also work with PCs, tablets and smartphones, although the processing box is not an option when those devices aren't attached to an external display. These viewing platforms require the use of passive glasses as opposed to the active shutter glasses used with televisions. However, even here 3-D Vision's technology has a few advantages. The company claims it is the first approach to generate color 3D with anaglyph-style paper 3D glasses. Also, video remains viewable without the "double-vision" effect when viewed without the glasses, although there is some softening.

If 3-D Vision's demos have a fatal flaw, it's ghosting. It's everywhere -- on PC monitors, CRTs and plasma televisions -- and can be severely distracting. The company offers a range of reasons for this depending on the scenario -- older versions of its processing technology, suboptimal white balancing and ultimately a limitation of today's display technologies. One way to address it might be to dial down the intensity of the 3D effect, a feature offered by the PlayStation 3, Nintendo 3DS and TVs that can perform in-set conversion. If 3-D Vision can improve on that front, or if consumers are willing to accept it, its technology could welcome a wealth of shutout content and devices to a 3D experience.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is principal analyst at Reticle Research, an advisory firm focused on consumer technology. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.