Video Goes Stereo
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 8 (August 2003)

Video Goes Stereo

Since at least the 1950s, when studios released a blizzard of 3D movies, technologists and artists have been fascinated by the challenge of creating a compelling 3D moving picture experience—in which the action on the screen extends beyond the surface of the screen and out into the audience.

To date, the stereoscopic technologies that have the potential to make such experiences possible have achieved the greatest degree of acceptance in the technical world, where engineers, researchers, and scientists routinely use stereoscopic technologies in car design, medical research, and oil and gas exploration applications. In addition, stereoscopic technologies are used regularly and successfully in special entertainment venues, such as IMAX theaters and 3D theme park rides.

Despite those successes, the stereoscopic 3D experience has yet to significantly penetrate the mainstream of the film and video world. In part, that's because it's a lot more difficult to create a great stereoscopic experience using live-action footage than it is using computer graphics. Beyond that, the cost of making and displaying stereoscopic films and videos is fairly high. However, that doesn't mean anybody's giving up. This year, for example, movie-going audiences were treated to the release of two high visibility stereoscopic movies—Ghosts of the Abyss (see "Atypical Stereo," July 2003, pg. 44) and Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (see "Spying in Stereo," this issue, pg. 24).

Interestingly, the two movies used completely different stereoscopic techniques. For Ghosts of the Abyss, director James Cameron chose to use a polarized technology that requires the use of two projectors—with one projecting an image for the right eye and the other projecting an image for the left eye—and calls for audience members to wear special polarized glasses. In contrast, for Spy Kids 3-D, director Robert Rodriguez chose to use 1950s anaglyph technology, which enables the use of one projector and requires audience members to wear those funky red and blue glasses. Though not as advanced as the polarized technology, the anaglyph approach has the advantage of being able to be displayed in mainstream cinemas from a traditional film projector.

Although stereoscopic 3D movies are still the exception rather than the rule, the emergence of new digital video-based projection systems promises to make stereo 3D projects more affordable to create and distribute.

While it's unlikely that these two films alone will suddenly make stereoscopic movies wildly popular, their release does prompt a discussion of developments in the stereoscopic 3D world that just might have the potential to push the technology toward greater mainstream acceptance. One important effort in this regard aims to take advantage of recent advances in digital-video, video-projector, and computer-server technologies to create a much less expensive way of displaying stereoscopic films and video. Spearheading this trend is a partnership of three companies—Edwards Technologies (El Segundo, CA), Panasonic (Secaucus, NJ), and nWave (Culver City, CA).

Edwards Technologies has been in the business of building multi-sensory experiences for entertainment centers and theme parks for nearly 30 years. And according to company president and CEO Brian Edwards, the systems traditionally used to display 3D stereoscopic movies have been enormously expensive to build, install, operate, and maintain. For example, the cost of building an 800-seat IMAX theater can reach nearly $7 million, including all the specialized film projection equipment and labor to run it. In addition, just making a single film print for an IMAX theater can cost $40,000.

Given those realities, Edwards decided to join forces with Panasonic and nWave to build a 3D stereoscopic display system that would make it easy and cost-effective for a wide range of venues, including zoos, museums, aquariums, visitor centers, and institutions, to build high-quality 3D theaters with seating capacities ranging from 50 to 450.

In June, at a screening in New York, Edwards and his partners unveiled the result of that collaboration, the Panasonic Digital Cinema in 3D—a completely integrated, customizable system built around ETI server and software technology and two stacked Panasonic PT-D7600 three-chip DLP video projectors. With one projector serving up an image for one eye and the other serving up an image for the other eye, the result is a 12,000 lumen, high-definition image that is viewed by audience members wearing lightweight, passive polarized glasses.

The system can be purchased for as little as $300,000, and it requires no specialized projection booth, eliminates the need for costly film prints, and offers nearly hands-free operation. Already the new system is in use at four Legoland theme parks and at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California.

Charlotte Huggins, president of nWave, the world's leading producer of 3D imaging content, doesn't believe the introduction of the new system will threaten the existence of IMAX theaters, which she says represent the pinnacle of the 3D theater experience. But she does believe the new system will play an important role in mainstreaming it. In fact, given that a 3D theater using the new Panasonic system can be built for less than 20 percent of the cost of an IMAX theater, she envisions an explosion in the number of 3D theaters.

"The goal is to put these 3D theaters into special venues and sometimes even existing 35mm cinemas," Huggins says. "Special venues are where all new forms of entertainment start. And if we can keep doing that, we'll eventually increase the number of theaters and have a real 3D theater network."

Sharing in that vision is another team of partners consisting of StereoGraphics (San Rafael, CA) and Christie Digital (Cypress, CA), which offers its version of an integrated stereoscopic display system. Called the 3D Cinema Server, the system is built around a Sun Microsystems Blade 2000 workstation, StereoGraphics' stereoscopic technologies, and any one of four Christie Digital Mirage projectors. The system can operate in conjunction with passive polarizing eyewear or with StereoGraphics' active liquid crystal shutter eyewear, called CrystalEyes, for an even higher-quality viewing experience.

A unique characteristic of this system is that it requires the use of only one projector. According to Bill Schmidt, senior director of business development of VR and simulation for Christie Digital, the Mirage projectors were the first ones on the market with the speed and frame rates necessary to generate separate right- and left-eye views from a single machine. A fully integrated system can be purchased for less than $150,000, making it attractive not only to theaters and special venues, but also to staging and rental companies looking for a new way to spice up trade-show booths or company sales meetings.

"With this system, you can shoot live footage and present it in real time up on the screen as 3D IMAG (image magnification) video," says Schmidt. "Companies are always looking for something new, and this is a good option."

The idea of bringing stereo 3D to the business world for use in meetings and trade shows is a good one, and it's a trend that's gaining momentum thanks in part to another recent development—glasses-free autostereoscopic 3D displays.

Here, again, StereoGraphics is leading the way with its SynthaGram monitors. The other main pioneer in the field is 4D-Vision of Germany, with its offering of 4D monitors.

To create its line of SynthaGram monitors, StereoGraphics basically has taken standard flat-panel LCD and plasma monitors in sizes ranging from 18 to 42 inches and placed a sheet of specially designed lens material over the screens. Once built, the monitors make it possible for multiple viewers to simultaneously watch 3D video or still images from any one of nine different viewing positions around the screen. No glasses are required.

According to Michael Longerbeam, director of marketing for Stereographics, the new displays are perfect for trade shows and corporate meetings, and are proving especially popular in retail environments as point-of-purchase displays and in the gaming world as displays for slot machines and other kinds of arcade games.

One company that can attest to the growing popularity of these displays is Dynamic Digital Depth, which makes software for converting 2D video footage and still images into 3D formats. According to CEO Chris Yewdall, much of the company's business these days is coming from people who want to convert footage, which typically ranges anywhere from 30 seconds to four minutes, for use on these new autostereoscopic displays.

The cost for converting 2D video to 3D for use on autostereoscopic displays, he says, runs about $2500 per minute. In contrast, the cost for converting 2D video to 3D for use in a passive stereo projection system is about $5000 per minute.

As technology advances and public interest piques, however, these costs are likely to decrease. I look forward to a time, perhaps not far off, when 3D video is not only prevalent in entertainment venues, but also the norm in business environments.

Stephen Porter is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and a freelance writer who has covered video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications for more than 15 years. He can be reached at