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Demystifying Tech: Stereoscopic 3D

Demystifying Tech is a new weekly series in which TechnoBuffalo’s staff deciphers the cryptic technology terms that are thrown around everyday. By attaining a higher knowledge of the specifications backing the latest gadgets, one is able to make educated decisions and construct substantial opinions about controversial and complex topics.

Today, we’ll be diving into the world of glasses-free stereoscopic 3D technology, which has been made popular by Nintendo’s latest handheld, the 3DS.

Representing length, width, and depth, there are many scientific and technological advancements that exist in three dimensions all around us. For example, surround sound is in fact three-dimensional acoustics and three-dimensional space is the geometric model of the physical universe we live in. Commonly referred to as 3D, the technology that has become extremely prevalent in recent years is stereoscopy, a technique for enhancing the illusion of depth.

EuclidHistorically, one can date stereoscopy back to around 300 B.C.E., the time when Euclid, the well-known mathematician, discovered how humans utilize depth perception. It is for that reason that the word is derived from Ancient Greek, meaning “to see firmly” (στερεος + σκοπεω, for all of you etymology fans). His findings revealed that we achieve a sense of depth because our eyes simultaneously receive two almost exact images, but with the little bit of difference that can be found between these two pictures, the brain is able to fuse them together to form a picture with depth.

With the scientific revelations that came over time, Charles Wheatstone, an English scientist, was able to decode the mystery of stereoscopy even further during the 1830s. He patented and demonstrated his work in the field with his reflecting stereoscope, which he had labored on for years. This device allowed for two different drawings to be viewed by each eye, appearing simultaneously.

The stereoscope was improved and became quite useful when photography began to gain public traction during the 19th century. Out of this development came the anaglyph stereoscopic process, which allowed for home viewing and anaglyph glasses, which were originally red and green. It was designed and used to view black and white photos, so these colors eventually evolved into the infamous red and blue spectacles that we now associate with cheap three-dimensional films.

Innovation took a bit of a hiatus, as it took until the 1950s before significant progress came again in the stereoscopic field. New and improved stereoscopic cameras were introduced for stereo photography, and Polaroid’s polarization filters allowed for full color reproduction with depth perception. With the critically-acclaimed films in the 1950s that utilized this technology, there is no surprise that it is generally referred to as the 3D Renaissance.

Then, three-dimensional film took a backseat to traditional storytelling until the 1980s, when the first IMAX theaters were opened. Providing the world’s first full 3D system, the format gained traction yet the lack of relevant films ultimately allowed it to slip back into the dark.

As 3D graphics became more realistic in the mid 1990s, stereoscopic 3D surged forth, and this time to stay. Metabyte announced a gaming system called Wicked3D that built upon the foundation of many great minds to put forth the world’s first full 3D gaming solution. NVIDIA started to develop an interest in the technology, and they invested a great deal of money into allowing for graphical drivers to support 3D.

Now, in 2011, 3D seems to be here to stay. Multiple films in the past few years have been awarded critical acclaim for their use of three-dimensional graphics, notably James Cameron’s Avatar. With the release of the Nintendo 3DS, the first consumer-affordable handheld gaming solution to utilize stereoscopic 3D, the Japanese company is pushing forth glasses-free technology to the masses. But how exactly does it work?

It is easy enough to understand that the illusion of three-dimensional imagery comes from a simple variation of perspective between our two eyes. However, it becomes a bit more complicated with glasses-free technology. Before, different colors, specifically red and cyan, allowed images to be filtered to the correct eyes, ensuring that the 3D experience was consistent.

Glasses-free stereoscopic 3D, the variant found on the 3DS, requires a parallax barrier to be placed in front of a liquid crystal display. Essentially a layer of film with precision slits, a parallax barrier allows for certain pixels to be picked up by each eye, which results in an experience remarkably akin to the sensation found when wearing glasses. One notable disadvantage of the technology is the fact that the user must be in a well-defined spot in order to fully view the three-dimensional effect.

[Image Source – Tom’s Guide]

Sony, meanwhile, has invested in active shutter technology, which requires glasses but provides a much crisper experience for those viewing the same content from a variety of angles. Controlled by either radio frequency or Bluetooth, the liquid crystal lens in each eye of the glasses darkens when voltage is applied. The television tells the glasses what eye should see a particular picture when, and then they actively shutter at such a rate that the darkening is not distinguishable.

While many companies are going to continue to draw upon glasses as the primary way to deliver three-dimensional content, many cellphone manufacturers have announced plans to introduce glasses-free offerings similar to the 3DS.

What do you believe? Would you rather see more glasses-free content similar to Nintendo’s 3DS or the crisper imagery that is provided by active shutter technology. Sound off in the comments below.

Jack McGrath

Rooted in his childhood obsession with dismantling and reassembling gizmos and gadgets around the house, Jack McGrath's knowledge of programming,...