As I’ve said many times, 8K resolution is pointless for consumers sitting at a normal distance from even a large screen. However, at CES 2018, I saw a use case that makes 8K entirely worthwhile for home use: Stream TV glasses-free 3D.
When I first saw Stream TV glasses-free 3D on a 4K/UHD TV over four years ago, I was very impressed with how well it worked. Since then, however, I saw no sign it would enter the consumer-TV market in any significant way.
Now, it looks like this technology might finally make it into consumer TVs, thanks to a newly announced partnership between Stream TV Networks and BOE, one of the largest flat-panel OEMs (original-equipment manufacturers) that supplies raw panels to many TV companies. In fact, BOE ships 100 million panels per year, and it will open a new factory in March to make 8K panels. Even better, BOE plans to build Stream TV glasses-free 3D technology into all of its 8K panels.
Stream TV glasses-free 3D technology is called Ultra-D. The system is comprised of three basic parts—a module that converts any 2D or standard stereoscopic signal (say, from a 3D Blu-ray) into the Ultra-D format in real time, a digital signal processor (DSP) that accepts an Ultra-D signal and controls the LCD subpixels, and an optical sheet bonded to the LCD panel.
The optical sheet consists of several refractive and diffractive layers that, combined with how the LCD subpixels are manipulated by the DSP, project the light from those subpixels out into the space in front of the panel, creating what’s called a light field. This generates stereopsis, a sense of depth when viewed with two eyes.
According to Stream TV’s white paper, “Virtual and partial subpixels merge in the space and form complete and separate views for each eye of the viewer. Then the viewer’s brain takes over, processing them in the same natural way as it is used to in the real world, creating a natural 3D experience. It is very different from 3D display technologies with glasses, which only project two discrete views of a scene. With Ultra-D technology, the viewing areas (light fields) are repeated in a horizontal way, and the transitions between these areas are smooth. So, a viewing area is not divided into discrete viewing zones (cones) as is done in most other technologies, but the optical system creates an almost continuous light field in front of the screen.”
Because Ultra-D creates a light field rather than two fixed views, it can also reproduce motion parallax, which is the effect you see when objects in your field of view move with respect to each other. This does not depend on stereopsis and can be used by those with partial or complete stereo blindness to experience a sense of depth. Apparently, Ultra-D detects objects that are partially occluding (blocking the sight of) other objects and extrapolates what you can’t see behind the object in front. When the objects move relative to each other, you perceive motion parallax.
In effect, Ultra-D combines a 2D image and a depth map, using the pixels on the screen for one or the other. For example, a 4K/UHD screen has 8 million pixels, half of which are used for the 2D image while the other half are used for the depth map. The end user can control the amount of depth, from none to extreme, but at any depth setting, the image will have no more apparent resolution than the pixels assigned to the 2D image.
At CES 2018, the Stream TV glasses-free 3D demo was presented on a 65″ custom-built flat panel with 16 million pixels in a 4K x 4K array. The 2D image was generated by 8 million pixels, and the depth map used the other 8 million pixels. The prototype was built for demo purposes only; a commercial product will have full 8K/UHD resolution with 32 million pixels. The exact ratio of pixels used for the 2D image and depth map has yet to be finalized, but it will probably be 8 million (4K/UHD) for the 2D image and 24 million for the depth map.
According to Mathu Rajan, CEO of Stream TV, “The human eye can’t tell the difference between 4K and 8K in flat 2D. Without using the third plane, you’re basically throwing away all those pixels. We use those extra pixels for pop and depth to create an immersive experience that brings real value to device makers and their customers.”
Demo footage included clips from Gravity, Life of Pi, Call of Duty, live basketball, and various commercials, such as the Heineken ad seen in the photo above. Stream TV had pre-processed the clips into the Ultra-D format, though this can be done in real time as well. The effect was entirely natural with no visible crosstalk. As I moved around the room, I could see subtle wavy distortions, but not when I was sitting in any one location, even if I moved my head. It was very impressive!
Stream TV hopes to get products into the marketplace by the third quarter of 2018. The first offering will probably be a gaming monitor, followed by a 65″ TV. Of course, a 65″ 8K TV is pointless—unless it has Stream TV glasses-free 3D, in which case, I find it quite compelling. So, take heart all you 3D fans; a renaissance may be at hand!