3D TVs could come back from the tech graveyard, thanks to this new display

3D TV is dead. Buried. Done. Or so it seemed.

Though 3D TV technology was assumed to be a dream of the past, researchers think they can revive the technology with a new glasses-free algorithm-based 3D hardware and software.

And maybe they can.

Research coming out of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) recently demonstrated something called Home3D, a combination of updated parallax barrier display technology and a chip-based algorithm that can instantly convert 2-channel stereoscopic video (old-school 3D) into rich, 4K-display-ready 3D video that supports eight (or more) glasses-free viewing angles.

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“By converting existing 3D movies to this format, our system helps open the door to bringing 3D TVs into people’s homes,” lead researcher and postdoctoral student Petr Kellnhofer said in a release. 

It's an ambitious dream — 3D TVs making a regular appearance in people's homes. That door has been opened and, ostensibly, closed, with manufacturers abandoning 3D TV technology and consumers showing little-to-no interest in home 3D content.

When I interviewed him last week, Kellnhofer acknowledged the shifting interest in 3D displays. However, he continued, "We believe the main problem is not to make such a display, the main problem is how to use such a display."

To build a Home3D prototype, Kellnhofer and his team started with a 40-inch LCD display and added a foil parallax barrier between the LCD panel and the display glass. The barrier is black but has hundreds of diagonal slits cut into it. The space between each slit is sub-pixel level or fewer than 3 pixels.

On the software side, Kellnhofer's algorithm uses contrast information in the source video to decide which sub-pixels to hide and which to show, which allows the 3D display to create a depth effect, instantly deciding how much depth to add.

Kellnhofer, who worked with MIT professors Fredo Durand, William Freeman, and Wojciech Matusik, as well as postdoc Pitchaya Sitthi-Amorn, former CSAIL postdoc Piotr Didyk, and former master’s student Szo-Po Wang on Home3D, will present their findings this month at SIGGRAPH in Los Angeles, California.

Unlike earlier iterations of glasses-free 3D TVs, which require you to stand directly in front of the display to see the 3D effect, or those that track your view to adjust the 3D image, Home3D supports over half a dozen viewing angles and HD-quality video, which means you could have eight people sitting around your Home3D TV, all having the same 3D experience. If the same technology were applied to an 8K display, the display would, according to Kellnhofer, support even more viewing angles.

“The researchers have used several clever algorithmic tricks to reduce a lot of the artifacts that previous algorithms suffered from and they made it work in real-time,” said Stanford University Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Gordon Wetzstein in a release. Wetzstein was not involved with the study.

Parallax display technology is not new, but the Home3D's algorithm is, Kellnnhofer noted. And he believes it can be ported directly to any display or even gaming console where the graphics processing unit could support the technology without the addition of extra silicon.

It's for this reason that Kellnhofer believes Home3D is much more practical and natural than previous 3D TV solutions.

Home3D provides a fully automatic 3D viewing experience, with the TV's algorithm controlling when the parallax mask is on or off. 

"You don't even have to think about it," said Kellnhofer. "You don't have to target, 'Oh, now I will watch a 3D movie.'"

MIT CSAILs glasses-free 3D solution isn't perfect. There's an occasional ghosting effect where an object that appears in one spot is also faintly visible in another. Kellnhofer explained that that's caused either by low contrast images that lack depth information or when people move from one viewing zone to another. 

"They could be in the unlucky spot where you see double images," he said.

Kellnhofer said space films like Sandra Bullock's Gravity are particularly effective on their Home3D technology. Basically, anything CGI where the 3D information is more clearly defined (and the contrast levels tend to be higher) works well.

Even though Kellnhofer is still working on finalizing the prototype, he believes that Home3D could be commercialized rather quickly, especially since manufacturers already have experience with integrating 3D support technologies. In fact, consumers have already seen similar technologies in shipping products

"Remember, [HTC] EVO 3D cellphone had a switchable 3D mask," said Kellnhofer.

Now he just has to convince and industry that's leaving home 3D far behind.

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