I am a fan of 3D movies, but I hate wearing glasses. And when I do don a pair, the last thing I want to see is artifacts instead of crystal-clear 3D. Unfortunately, almost all TVs have issues when it comes to 3D playback, such as ghosting and dim images. It is clear that the future of 3D is some sort of highly effective glasses-free display technology. Well, I'm here to tell you that such a system is no longer in the realm of science fiction or a prototype in a lab, years away from being practical.
Last time I visited Stream TV networks—a Philadelphia-based company that is at the forefront of autostereoscopic 3D technology—I witnessed a demo of its Ultra-D technology that made me a believer in the future of glasses-free 3D. That demonstration was not without its flaws, but at the time, I was so impressed with the overall effect that I thought it was nearly ready for prime time. The primary flaw I saw occurred when changing viewing position—namely, there was a rippling effect in the image as I moved around the screen.
This morning, I had the privilege to be the first member of the press to see the next evolution of Ultra-D—version 1.0 of the actual chip-based video-processing system that is about to go into production, as opposed to an advanced prototype. Stream TV Networks Chief Operating Officer Raja Rajan took me through the evolution of the Ultra-D system, highlighting how quickly the technology is progressing at this point. Version 1.1 of the video-processing system is just days away, and version 2.0 is right around the corner. It is hard to overstate how much the quality of the Ultra-D system has improved each time I have seen it.
In this morning's demo, the two Ultra-D UHDTVs on display were identical panels with the same settings. Only the video processing was different—one was using the new chipset while the other was using the previous prototype processor. That really surprised me, because there was such a huge difference in terms of overall image quality, including the reduction of the warble effect. Even better, with the new processor, picture quality was improved across the board in a manner that made the viewing experience superior in many image-quality criteria.
The new processor created a sharper image, with much better shadow detail and more accurate colors than the prototype processor. Perhaps the most important improvement was the quality of the 2D-to-3D conversion—it was excellent. In particular, I saw marked improvements in the 3D geometry of facial renderings. This is a crucial aspect of 2D-to-3D conversion; it usually does not work very well, creating disturbing anomalies such as exaggerated foreheads and overly long noses. The conversion I saw today looked extremely accurate—possibly superior some Hollywood studio 2D-3D conversions. We used The Avengers playing off a 2D Blu-ray as the demo material, and I felt that the auto conversion of that movie was on par with the studio conversion.
The latest Ultra-D processing is shown on the left—all aspects of PQ were improved
Of course, 2D-to-3D conversion is one thing, but actual native 3D content always trumps converted content in my experience. I checked out Life of Pi, which we had used as a demo during my previous visit. This time, 3D from Blu-ray looked profoundly realistic, clearly better than the previous incarnation. In fact, it is the most natural-looking 3D that I have seen on TV. I could watch content on a panel like that all day long.
Thankfully, the 2D-to-3D conversion does a great job with 2D content, and even 3D skeptics might find something to like in the way the video is processed. It's all about how the Ultra-D processor creates the 3D image. The processing enhances the resolution of 1080p source material, and it is not simple upscaling. Ultra-D uses information gleaned from multiple frames to calculate the motion vectors in the geometry of the 3D scene. Those multiple frames contain more texture and edge detail than any one frame by itself. The result is that 1080p footage processed through Ultra-D's algorithms contains more detail—gleaned from the differences between the frames used to create the 3D image—than the original single frames from the 1080p source.
Since the degree of depth generated by the automatic conversion is adjustable, a viewer can opt to have a very mild 3D effect applied to the processed footage, subtle enough to be imperceptible. However, the footage still receives the same processing that enhances the resolution—the best term I can think of for the effect is "enhanced 2D."
On my last visit to Stream TV Networks, I left convinced that I had seen the future of 3D display technology. The reason I say "future" is that the product had subtle flaws, which 3D aficionados have come to expect in just about any implementation of the technology. On this visit, I saw an improvement so dramatic, it is clear that perfect 3D reproduction—without glasses—is not just achievable, it is close to hitting store shelves. I promise you this: When you see your first production-quality Ultra-D equipped UHDTV, it is going to knock your socks off. And that statement includes most 3D skeptics.
On another note, the actual UHD panels I saw looked very good, as far as standard picture quality parameters are concerned. They are based on Innolux 50" UHD panels (CMI V500DK1), which are full-array backlit LED-LCD UHDTVs, and the evenness of illumination was very impressive, almost plasma-like in its uniformity. Of course, black levels were not a match for current plasma TVs, but overall, I saw very good picture quality on the demo units. Just a couple days ago, I visited the TV-testing labs at Consumer Reports and CNET, and I did not see one single LED-edgelit LCD TV that had anything close to the screen uniformity of these panels.
I left the Stream TV Networks office very impressed after my latest visit. There is a 65" Ultra-D TV coming to market in 2014, and I honestly cannot wait for that, because I do love 3D, and this is the best way to watch 3D content that I have ever seen. I am definitely going to save up and buy one. What I saw was so good, it is hard to believe that the technology can be refined further—but the advances in quality are very real and coming at a frantic pace. Since the system is display-agnostic, it could be used in conjunction with OLED, LCD, and (hopefully) 4K plasmas. Stream TV Networks is planning an 84-inch panel and is even discussing the creation of a 110-inch panel that features Ultra-D.
Now I know for a fact that near-perfect autostereoscopic 3D is not only possible, it is a reality, and perfect glasses-free 3D seems within reach. I did not expect to be among the very first to see a demonstration of this new level of 3D quality—it is my good fortune to live a short bike ride from Stream TV Networks HQ, and for being an AVS Forum Newsbreaker. I cannot wait to see the next round of improvements.
Edited by imagic - 10/19/13 at 7:37am