Television That Leaps Off the Screen
By MICHAEL KRANTZ The New York Times July 3, 2005
In a nondescript optics lab in tucked into an anonymous office park in the San Fernando Valley, the photon hackers of Deep Light are showing me the future of media. The object of their affection is a small screen on which an animated gladiator is clashing scimitars with a horned monster in a Coliseum-like setting. But this isn't a flat cartoon image: it's full 3-D space, the combatants circling each other inches from my eyes so convincingly that my hand twinges to grab them - and I'm not wearing those clunky red-and-blue cardboard glasses, either. I'm seeing a 3-D image with the naked eye. My host, Deep Light's co-founder Dan Mapes, bounces on his heels, giggling with delight. "It's cool, isn't it?"
Yeah, it's cool.
Ordinary TV sets deliver 500 lines of resolution. Most high-definition screens reach 1,050. The HD3D hits 1,280 lines and counting - which means better picture quality than that of any TV available today, all in a convincing impression of the third dimension. And here's the seriously trippy part about the new screen, which Deep Light plans to introduce at next winter's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas: multiple "blades" of video enable one screen to show different programs to different viewers, at the same time.
Imagine what that could do to your living room. Your kid sprawls on the floor, happily splattering the virtual walls of Quake 3-D, while you sit on the couch watching the news and your spouse beside you talks with friends in a virtual chat room - all on the same TV, all at the same time, and all in 3-D. Lean a few feet to the right and the latest report from the floor of the stock exchange becomes a live 3-D chat with the couple who came over to dinner the other night; lean the other way and Junior is blasting a zombie. And something similar is going on over at the neighbor's. And halfway around the world.
To be sure, plenty of technical and financial hurdles stand between today's 3-D pioneers and the future of their fervid imaginations. But Mr. Mapes thinks Deep Light has a pretty big trend on its side: humanity's evolution toward ever-more sophisticated representations of reality. "The brain is a media junkie," he says. "And it wants the good stuff."
We see the world in three dimensions, but throughout most of history, we've only been able to depict it in two. Until recently no one had come up with a better solution to this problem than goofy eyewear. When Rover sent back images from Mars, NASA scientists studied them wearing much the same glasses that audiences in 50's movie palaces donned to watch "It Came From Outer Space."
Within the realms of industry, that's been changing, as what's known as stereoscopic imaging has become a big business involving everyone from drug researchers doing molecular mapping to car designers building next year's SUV. Culturally, however, it remains a novelty, consigned to the occasional theme park ride or Imax film. Recent commercial film releases, like "The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D," have raised its profile a bit, but they still rely on the dinky glasses.
But the ever-evolving high-tech revolution is finally moving 3-D entertainment to the next stage. Sharp has sold three million 3-D cell phones in Japan since 2003 and has just released a laptop that toggles between 2-D and 3-D views. The South Korean government, meanwhile, recently announced an ambitious "3-D Vision 2010" project to make stereoscopic TV the worldwide standard within five years, and a number of companies are racing Deep Light to build the pieces of that puzzle; just in April, Toshiba announced new display technology for 3-D television screens. "The whole realm of TV," says Chris Chinnock, the president of the market research firm Insight Media, "is the Holy Grail of 3-D."
In which case 3-D's Lancelot may turn out to be a Cambridge University professor named Adrian Travis. Back in autumn 1986, while he was an optics-obsessed grad student, Mr. Travis had an idea that he called time multiplexing. Suppose you were to pass an image through a lens and open a shutter when it emerged to guide the image out at a precise angle. And suppose you could do that for 30 images a second through each of 10 angles. Like fanning out a deck of cards, you'd beam out 10 angles of your image so quickly that, no matter where the viewer was in relation to the screen, each of his eyes would see its own angle of live video. VoilÃ*: natural 3-D.
The problem was speed. Movies need 24 frames per second to fool our brain into seeing motion. Video needs 30. Time multiplexing needed 300, and no device existed to deliver it, so Mr. Travis decided he'd just build one himself. "I thought it was a get-rich-quick scheme," he says with a chuckle. "I'd make my fortune and then decide what I really wanted to do in life." Instead, it followed the course of so many other high-tech eurekas: a long, painful succession of investors nibbling away at it, until the trail of licenses and sub-licenses reached from Europe to Asia to Los Angeles and Dan Mapes.
Mr. Mapes is a New Age-bedazzled baby boomer and high-tech savant who's been preaching the gospel of virtual worlds ever since the 1960's. His eclectic rÃ©sumÃ© ranges from designing light shows for Peter Gabriel to running online video-conferences for the United Nations. He was in his lab in Santa Monica, Calif., three years ago when a former employee then working in Korea called him to rave about time multiplexing. So Mr. Mapes went to a Northrop Grumman military laboratory in the San Fernando Valley, where Mr. Travis's latest demo box, a 50-inch giant, had been gathering dust.
And what he saw, he says, changed his career plans on the spot. He and two partners, Paul Yoon and Robert Kory, spent $2 million in investment capital and three years gathering all the relevant patents and licenses under one corporate umbrella to build their first HD3D.
The small company, which has yet to book its first actual sale to a manufacturer, is hardly guaranteed to win the 3-D race, but time multiplexing, the only rear-projection no-glasses 3-D system to date, may give it an edge over larger players. Toshiba's flat-panel screen, for instance, alternates rows of pixels to deliver different angles to each eye in order to produce a 3-D effect, but at the cost of the screen's resolution: 480 lines to Deep Light's 1,280. Deep Light says that the first PC monitors with natural 3-D could be out as soon as this winter for around $5,000 and the HD3D television sets could be available by next year for $10,000 - a number that might not be out of the question for slavering home-theater freaks. These prices could drop when the technology is mass-produced. All this, of course, depends to a large degree on Deep Light's finding manufacturers willing to license its technology (though they are putting 3-D PC monitors into production themselves).
HD3D isn't the first, or even the biggest, high-tech attempt to change the way people watch television. Yet aside from the advent of cable, the viewing experience remains largely the same. (Even TiVO is still a minority taste, to say nothing of interactive TV.)
If 3-D is to have a big impact on American living rooms, the first indication, paradoxically, may come at the multiplex. The film industry has lately been conducting its own experiments: last winter, for example, 2 percent of the screens that played the animated Tom Hanks film "Polar Express" did so in Imax 3-D. Those few screens were responsible for 22 percent of the movie's domestic ticket sales.
"Everyone in town sees 3-D as the killer app for digital cinema," says Joshua Greer, chief executive of Real D, whose hardware and software for 3-D delivery lets theaters exhibit digital films economically in both 2-D and 3-D. In March, the company announced its first deal, with the Mann Theaters chain, and will also provide the equipment for Disney's plans, revealed last week, to release "Chicken Little" in 3-D on 100 screens this fall. Mr. Greer says he hopes to be on 1,000 screens by next summer.
"We're on the cusp of a stereo renaissance," says the director James Cameron ("Titanic'"), a hardcore technophile. "I'm doing all my films in stereo from now on, and just waiting for the display technology to catch up, both at the theater and the consumer level."
Meanwhile, the games industry has been eager to adapt to the evolving technology: hit titles like Halo 2 and Spiderman are already programmed in 3-D, ready for the day when TV screens are ready to show them in all their glory. And both the new Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 use platform standards that support 3-D.
It will almost certainly be years, however, before anyone starts making ordinary television shows in 3-D, a situation that suggests a typical chicken-and-egg problem - why would the hardware giants build 3-D sets if there's nothing playing to seduce consumers into buying them? Because, Deep Light and its competitors hope, the old 2-D programming can be retrofitted to new sets. "We can synthetically create the 3-D data that's lost when you film with a 2-D camera," says Chris Yewdall, chief executive of Dynamic Digital Depth, a 3-D technology company in San Monica. The company's software in Sharp's 3-D laptop lets you watch ordinary DVD's in 3-D; in theory, a similar box, plugged into your HD3D system, would render every movie on Netflix fit for 3-D conversion. "As the 3-D display market reaches a certain size," Mr. Yewdall says, "we think Hollywood will be quite interested in exploiting those screens for their libraries." Ready for "The Honeymooners" in 3-D? "Desperate 3-D Housewives?" Might your children enjoy, say, rampaging 3-D dinosaurs?
"Jurassic Park in 3D?" Mr. Mapes yells. "It's mind-blowing! Martial arts in 3-D are so good! Porn in 3-D? Oh my God ..."
Do we really need porn in 3-D? Will "Casablanca" be a better film when we can reach out and touch Ingrid Bergman? Will sitcoms be funnier and dramas more engrossing when writers create stories that move not only up/down and right/left but also in/out?
We're no more likely today to make an accurate prediction of the future of 3-D entertainment than the average talkie-era moviegoer would have been to anticipate "The Matrix." But when our ancestors painted bison on the walls at Lascaux, they were using the most advanced tools they had to depict their world as richly as possible, and we've been upgrading as fast as technology permits ever since. The transition to 3-D might someday look like just the next stop on a path we've been traveling all along, from sound to color to interactive - and beyond.
"These 3-D screens are going to be the head ends into the high-speed Internet," Mr. Mapes says. "Their ultimate application is networked virtual environments."
"Imagine 3-D TV hooked up to the Net," Mr. Mapes says. "I'm in California having shared experiences with friends in Indonesia. Forging deeper connections with people anywhere in the world will be one of the key factors in creating a true global village." And so, perhaps, will a cool new way to watch "Malcolm in the Middle."