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3D moves to the mainstream

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The dramatic success of James Cameron's Avatar – which this year will be followed by Steven Spielberg's TinTin, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, and others – has cast new light on the 3D phenomenon.

While 3D in one form or another has been around for decades, the latest technology is far more sophisticated, realistic, and immersive.  And – besides the enormous potential it has in the home entertainment world – 3D has already made its way to the personal computer, with Rectron launching  the Asus G51J 3D gaming notebook in South Africa last month.
Werner Joubert, personal systems and storage business manager and Werner Kuhn, Peripherals Business Manager at Rectron, examine the latest advances in 3D technology, and it’s potential impact on gaming, work, and home entertainment.
 
Q: 3D technology has been tried before on the personal computer platform, but was not deemed successful – how have things changed in the past ten years?
Kuhn: Stereoscopy, or 3D, has been tried in many different forms over the years, the most venerable being red/blue or red/green glasses. There have been many attempts, with varying levels of success, to add depth to flat images. Technology naturally plays an integral role and recent advances have allowed for new ways to portray depth and 3D.
As an example, while Avatar was a stunning success as a 3D movie, the film itself was conceived in the 1990s. Filming started in 1997 and initial release was slated for 1999. But James Cameron, Avatar’s creator felt that technology was not up to the standard he wanted to achieve. By waiting for the appropriate technology to emerge, he has given us a masterpiece – and the ideal 3D technical showcase.
 
Q: Why is the time right for 3D gaming to enter the mainstream?
Joubert: The technology is moving forward at a remarkable pace. It is now available, albeit only in certain forms, to consumers – or more specifically – to PC users.
PC technology has to be at a level to handle rendering the 3D image. New advances in LCD display technology and stereoscopic 3D have played a major role, and nVidia – for one – has leveraged these to create its ground-breaking nVidia 3D Vision for the PC.
As with any new technology, the entry-point is not immediately affordable to all. But with greater adoption and refinements and revisions, 3D will become cheaper and consumers will increasingly buy into it – particularly those gamers who demand “true” 3D for a more immersive experience.
The consumer electronics market is also jumping on the 3D bandwagon with TVs and projectors tthat will bring true 3D to the living room.
Gaming is just the first small step in a much bigger jump that will change the way we watch, play and even work in the future.
All the key players are already starting to play major roles and are racing to develop and release their rendition of 3D-capable hardware to the masses. Media will follow suit very quickly with 3D DVD and Blu-ray, as well as 3D television.
 
Q: What are the key drivers for 3D technology right now?
Kuhn: It’s a whole new market to tap into. 3D is being driven by entertainment, with Avatar and 3D gaming being showpieces for what 3D technology will bring to consumers. It is like having IMAX in your home.
Wide-spread adoption and the push into mainstream will only be constrained by entry-point pricing. Early adopters would get caught up right away, but the higher the price, the longer it will take to filter down.
 
Q: “Active” or “passive” – could you briefly discuss the two dominant technologies involved in 3D technology?
Joubert: Passive technology is the cheaper of the two; using polarised lenses, it is designed in such a way that each eye sees only the image it is supposed to see.  Passive technology projects two superimposed images, and using filters in each polarised lens, it allows the eyes to focus and register the correct image. Passive doesn’t use electronics and is perfectly suited for use in cinemas and cinematic-type settings.
The pros of passive technology would be cost-effective and perfect usage for mass audiences. Cons would be limited scope of usage.
Active technology, which is superior, uses a pair of glasses with built-in electronics and liquid crystal shutter lenses that allow or deny the passage of light through to the eye, synchronised with the images displayed on a TV or PC screen. The lenses are switched in rapid succession to create the illusion of depth, or a stereo effect. They offer a much higher resolution per eye and a much broader viewing angle for the user.
And while active technology does require specific hardware, it also has a much wider array of applications.
Pros would be higher resolution, a wider viewing angle, and a wider usage scope. Cons would be the higher pricing, and the specialised hardware required.
 
Q: Any potential business applications?
Kuhn: As with any new technology, all aspects are looked at, and 3D will more than likely have a place in the business world for application in design and drawing, presentation, development and so on. Business would be able to leverage the technology quite easily and in many different areas, and it will benefit productivity, work flow and collaboration.
 
Q: Are there any other interesting 3D technologies in the market that could potentially challenge of the dominance of these two technologies?
Joubert: We are still very early in the era of 3D technology, so there is no real dominant technology. But there are advances planned or being worked on. Eventually the aim would be to eliminate the need for glasses and headsets and so on. Holodeck, anyone?
 
Q: Compared with consoles that plug into a TV, for example, why is the personal computer – PC technology, hardware, software – a better platform for 3D gaming?
Joubert: The PC is the perfect test bed for a technology like this, as it is a highly customisable platform. There are many differing configurations and user types as well as an extensive library of software.
Due to the nature of the underlying hardware required, to get consoles or other types of specialised systems up-to-speed, would more than likely require that the consumer purchase a new system and TV, or at least a full software update and new TV.
PC users need to only have the right kind of monitor and a fast-enough graphics card. Everything else is handled in the background by software.
Unlike consoles – with their limited lifespans – PC technology also continually evolves, allowing for rapid enhancements and advances as well as new test beds in no time at all.
The advantage of 3D technology for PC gaming is that games do not specifically have to be written for 3D. They can be rendered in 3D thanks to the software drivers. And the game design company can also add certain 3D enhanced textures to the game, to enhance the experience.
There is an extensive list of 3D supported games, some of them already a few years old.
And thanks to speedy developments in the PC arena, 3D will reach other platforms much quicker.
 
Q: Currently 3D PC gaming seems relegated to an interaction between the player – wearing glasses – and a screen. How will this aspect of 3D gaming change in the years ahead?
Joubert: The 3D technology already supports a wide viewing angle, which means it can cater for at most three people wearing glasses looking at one screen.
However, the next logical step is multiple viewers. The technology will advance to allow for this, especially in the case of consoles, where split-screen gaming is common. This is also more suited for entertainment, especially in the case of having friends over to watch a video or two.
 
Q: Other than this type of basic interaction between player and technology, what other technologies will be engaged in coming years to make gaming even more immersive?
Kuhn: The next step would be sensor-based control. Being stuck to using a controller or keyboard/mouse is restrictive, and more immersive technology is in the works. There would be nothing more fun than the feeling of “being there in the middle of the action”.
 
Q: Will "all" PCs one day be 3D?
Kuhn: All forms of display will eventually go the 3D route to provide a more immersive experience without the need for special glasses or kit. Researchers are hard at work and we could have a breakthrough at any time.
 
Q: As you’ve mentioned, PCs are not the only area where we are going to see strides in 3D – TV is another.
Joubert: Key TV technology roadmaps over the coming years indicate that for major vendors, 3D is currently the highest priority. Before long, say researchers, TVs will become so advanced that they will accurately replicate the way our eyes and brains perceive the visual world.
With companies like Sony later this year rolling out TVs like the Bravia LX900, which has a 3D‑capable LCD display and transmitter built-in, two sets of 3D glasses, and Motionflow 200 – an advanced motion smoothing technology – it's clear that 3D is the next frontier.  
We should therefore start seeing the first true 3D technologies entering the high-end of the consumer TV market during the course of this year. Initially, as with any new development, it will be incredibly pricey.
But 3D will develop rapidly and will more than likely move into the mainstream incredibly fast; so much so that the average TV by the end of the decade will likely be 3D of one kind or another.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the leading United Nations agency for information and communication technology issues – has mapped out three different generations or profiles in the years ahead for 3D TV. The first is plano-stereoscopic television, where viewers will wear glasses much like those used at 3D cinemas to see depth.
According to ITU, the second generation will provide for multiple views. Head movement will change the view and create a viewing experience that more closely mimics real life. The third generation will feature systems that the ITU reports will “record the amplitude, frequency, and phase of light waves, to reproduce almost completely human beings’ natural viewing environment”.
Don’t get too excited about seeing any of this on a TV near you any time soon; ITU reports that these highly-advanced systems are technically some 15 to 20 years away.
These new futuristic display systems will not only change the way we experience broadcast and multimedia content, but open up new possibilities in other sectors, says ITU – from education and healthcare to traffic management.

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