April 8, 2010

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3D: fad or future?
High Definition is soooo ’00s
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Think it’s tough buying a regular old standard definition, tube TV? Just wait. In a couple years, plain-jane HD flatscreens will be hard to come by.

That’s because 3D is finally hitting the shelves in a big way. The success of Avatar at the box office came at the perfect time to usher in this new era, because while the technology’s been in development for a while, that movie brought it to the masses convincingly.

The concept isn’t new, of course. Creature from the Black Lagoon was a classic when I ran the projection booth for it three times in one headache-inducing night in college. That’s old-school 3D, though. Two frames were overlaid on each other on a single piece of film, one tinted red, the other blue. Cheap cardboard glasses filtered out the blue from one of your eyes and red from the other, so right and left eyes were essentially watching two different movies.

The concept is basically the same with the current generation of 3D, but the implementation is much more complicated. Each of your two eyes sees a slightly different picture, but there’s no annoying color difference to take you out of reality. Sadly, glasses are required on all but the most expensive and experimental televisions, and they cost considerably more than the ones in a cereal box.

The glasses actually require power of their own to synchronize with the TV, which shows alternating frames for your right and left eyes. It happens so fast that motion still looks smooth, but the television has to be built specifically for that alternation and synchronization. That’s right, 3D only gets big when electronics companies can sell you something new.

Playstation 3 owners won’t have to purchase a new gaming system, at least. A downloadable firmware update is expected, well, any day now that will allow games to be displayed in 3D. You will need a fancy 3D television and the glasses that come with it, if it’s one of those. The really good news is that many existing games might suddenly work in 3D as well, even if they weren’t originally designed that way. Since the underlying models used in games — that race car or space ship you’re piloting, for example — have three dimensions defined already, and are only displayed in 2D because you’re viewing them from one angle, the firmware update can just render them from two different angles.

Oh, and that Blu-ray player in the Playstation 3? Also getting a firmware update.

Nintendo’s next portable gaming system will have its own 3D display. Exactly how it will work isn’t yet clear, but the company has stated that it won’t require special glasses. Details are slim — Nintendo has only released a short statement on its Japanese Web site the 3DS will come out sometime in the next year, that it will be backward compatible with all DS and DSi games, and that they will be making a more detailed announcement this summer. That’s different than actually making the announcement because … well, because.

Needless to say, gamers are abuzz with the possibilities. Will it use the same type of screen coating that makes $8,000 glasses-less 3D HDTVs possible? Will it use the built-in camera to track the user’s eyes and change the picture on the screen accordingly? How much money will I have to shell out the very moment it’s available in stores?