When exactly it all begins, nobody can tell you that, but we can pretty much consider that the beginning of stereoscopy dates back to probably around the 300th year B.C., which is he time the Greek mathematician Euclid found out how we humans achieve the depth perception of the world around us (this is the earliest time we have a record of that being discovered). His findings revealed that the depth we perceive is achieved because of the fact that our eyes simultaneously receive two almost exact images, but with a little bit of difference in the perspective and then our brain fuses these two images into one picture with depth. Of course this was just the start, as understanding how our eyes work is very important first step, but a lot more is required to take advantage of that knowledge for the entertainment purposes we use it nowadays. After going back so long time ago, we make a big jump in time to era of the Renaissance, at which time there was also a lot of development about the illusion of depth and how it can be achieved with the help of drawings and paintings. You’ve heard about Leonardo and how he achieved great things back in that time, and he was not the only artist taking advantage of the accumulated knowledge of how we perceive things with our eyes. But actually until the year 1838-39 and the work of the English scientist Charles Wheatstone you can say that things were still developing a bit slow for actually taking advantage of the stereoscopic effect. The pace has quickly started to pick up at that time, when he patented and demonstrated his pioneer work in the stereoscopic 3D field – namely his Stereoscope device. Wheatstone has started working a few years before that on a device that he called a reflecting stereoscope or just a stereoscope – a device that allowed two different drawings to be simultaneously viewed by each eye and thus the illusion of real depth was being achieved. Back at that time they still used two drawings with a little bit different perspective and two mirrors to reflect them and position the two images, so that the viewer can simultaneously see them with his eyes. But even that seemed as a significant development and was quite impressive for the people living back at that time.
Some years later, but still during the 19th century, the stereoscope was further developed and improved and with the photography starting to gain a lot of interest among the general public, the first stereoscopic cameras were being created. Around 1850 was the first period in time when the stereoscopic photography has gained a lot of interest and thanks to that a lot of people had stereoscopes to view such photographs at home (the drawings were replaced with black and white photos). At that time the anaglyph stereoscopic process has also been discovered and in the 1850s the first anaglyph images and anaglyph glasses (red-green filters at first) using different color filters were developed. But of course the anaglyph process has been designed and used to view black and white photographs and not color ones, as the color photos had to wait a few more decades before becoming available. And I’m sure that you probably thought the anaglyph stereoscopic 3D is a fairly new technology, but in fact it is really old concept that is still being taken advantage of. So yet again we skip a few more years in the history until the 1890s, when the interest in stereoscopy has started to boom thanks to the work being done on the first anaglyphic stereo 3D movies (still black and white of course) and that has continued into the early 20th century. The next big moment for stereoscopy, we are still talking about movies as they were the main driving force for stereoscopic development at that time, was in 1950s. New and improved stereoscopic cameras were being developed for stereo photography at that time, and the first solutions using polarization filters (thank Polaroid for that) allowed full color reproduction with depth perception, thus becoming somewhat the preferred method later on, instead of using the older anaglyph method, but still anaglyph did not die…
One major milestone of that time was the release of a 3D movie called Bwana Devil, released in 1952, that has managed to perform quite well and thus attract the attention in Hollywood to 3D once again (some people consider the 50s to be like a Renaissance for 3D and say that we are now repeating that 3D Renaissance). But at that time the movie industry also had to find something new to fight with the appearance of TVs at home, believing that this could greatly hurt the movie industry. So the 3D movies were considered one of the new things to come in cinema, yet again, although unfortunately they did not manage to make 3D so popular there were quite a lot of movies produced in 3D in the 50s. The reasons for that were the problems and additional costs that were introduced when shooting the movie in 3D, doing the post-processing in 3D and then when projecting it in 3D at the cinema and as there were also synchronization problems between the two projectors showing the image and various other issues, so the resulting 3D experience for the viewers was not always the best. Then another comeback in the 80s and with IMAX introducing its first 3D system, things for stereoscopic 3D yet again started to heat up, but still not a lot of hit movies were produced in stereoscopic format which was a serious problem. The major issues with stereo 3D movies getting the attention they deserved and of course becoming mainstream was still the cost of production of a movie in 3D and then the additional cost for equipping a movie theater with a system capable of reproducing that 3D image to the viewers. Not to mention that when talking about 3D movies in the early second half of the 20th century, most of them relied on the so called “cheap” 3D tricks to impress the audience using a lot of scenes where objects seemed to fly right in the faces of the viewers, and other than that did not offer much depth to the world projected on the screen. You should be clearly aware of the fact that a 3D movie is not just a 2D movie that was shot with a two cameras instead of one or the same 2D movie with added just some “cheap” tricks on top of the 2D image. A 3D movie is much more, and that is precisely why not all 3D movies are good in the end and also is the reason why 2D to 3D conversions when not properly executed may as well turn out quite bad.
But back on the “history lesson”, you can say that the next big thing about stereoscopic 3D started in the mid 90s of the 20th century, at a time when personal computers started to get a lot of interest especially for gaming, because of the 3D graphics they offered was getting better and more realistic. Back at that time everyone was talking about virtual reality in different forms and there were some companies interested in making stereoscopic 3D games, allowing the gamers to actually have the perception of true depth while they played. This however proved to be a difficult task, but things started to change at the end of 1998, when a company called Metabyte has announced their first stereoscopic 3D gaming solution called Wicked3D. What they did was to provide not only a hardware in the form of active shutter glasses (allowing the user to see different consecutive frames with each of his eyes), but also releasing an universal, so to say, driver that could transform hundreds of normal 3D games into stereoscopic 3D games. Prior to that solution, every game developer had to work out some sort of a stereoscopic 3D support for his own game and with the Wicked3D that was no longer needed. Originally all 3D games do have most of the needed information for being displayed in stereoscopic 3D, as there is all the needed depth information, what was lacking was the software that will allow the graphics in the game to be rendered twice with a little difference in the perspective, so that when perceived by the user the depth effect will be present. At that time you had to use CRT display with a high refresh rate, because by using active shutter glasses you need to show twice as much frames on the screen as you’d normally do and the job of the glasses is to separate them for each eye. A monitor capable of at least 85Hz, preferably 100Hz was required in order to have 40-50 frames per eye with no noticeable flickering, as this is a bad side effect when quickly making one lens of the glasses dark and then switching it to the other. This is the exact principle that the shutter glasses use in order to achieve stereoscopic 3D depth effect with a single display and not with two separate small displays as the most advanced head mounted display solutions use. The things continued to develop further in the next few years as the graphic processor producer Nvidia has developed a serious interest into stereoscopic 3D gaming and in turn acquired the team responsible for Wicked3D that was working at Metabyte…
Nowadays everyone is talking about stereo 3D and it seems that finally it is about time for the technology to become mainstream and everybody to have some sort of 3D solution available at home, and not to see 3D movies just at the cinema anymore, but also to be able to enjoy all kinds of stereo 3D content at home. Of course it will take at least a few more years in order for the different stereo 3D solutions to become widely adopted and become a common thing in our everyday life, but the good thing is that we are seeing a lot of efforts being put to promote the technology. And although we already have quite a lot of products on the market and more are soon to become available, we still have some issues regarding interoperability and of course the lack of a lot of content in 3D. But in order for you to better understand what problems we are currently facing in 3D technology and the already available implementations we should go back at the beginning of this century and take a look at what happened in the last 10 years.
Let’s get back to the part where Nvidia started to develop their interest in stereo 3D technology, especially for PC gaming, and thus acquiring the team that worked on the Wicked3D product over at Metabyte. Somewhere around 2001 Nvidia already had an additional stereo 3D driver of their own to go along with the Detonator and later Forceware graphical drivers, designed for the company’s GPUs. The stereo 3D driver had to be installed after the GPU driver, in order for the additional functionality to support anaglyph and page flipping stereo 3D output to be available as an option. These drivers worked for the TNT, TNT2 and Vanta as well as GeForce, GeForce 2 and 3 GPUs, and of course the professional Quadro graphic solutions, being made by Nvidia back at around that time. It is interesting to note that even back then Nvidia was thinking about the use of stereo 3D not only for gaming, but also in the professional field for users that needed to have more realistic 3D visualizations in their workflow. And now, years later that way of thinking still haven’t changed as with its new 3D Vision product Nvidia still supports both the consumer GeForce and the professional Quadro users in their need for stereo 3D visualizations. In time Nvidia continued to improve the support of their drivers and even added support for additional hardware like HMD devices (Head Mounted Displays) and in the following few years the Nvidia stereo 3D driver became the most used and relied on solution for different type of products that supported stereo 3D visualizations. So you could not only use the cheap paper anaglyph red-cyan glasses on your normal monitor (CRT displays at that time) or a pair of more expensive LC (Liquid Crystal) shutter glasses that also worked with CRT monitors, but required higher refresh rate models to function without noticeable flickering, but also a 3D HMD device or other exotic solution too. At that time Nvidia had no competition in the area of stereo 3D for gaming and the PC gaming was booming with a lot of interest in further development of the immersion while playing games. But then again stereo 3D was still far from becoming a mainstream technology and was still more like an enthusiasts and early adopters thing.
Now if you think back about displays and how they developed in the last 10 years or so you’ll immediately think of the evolution of going from the big and bulky CRT monitors to the more compact LCD displays. You can say that on the desktop segment this has started somewhere around 2001, but at first the prices of the LCD monitors were quite high and they had some issues and were not performing as good as CRTs in a lot of aspects. But just one year later and the LCD display prices have dropped in half and while they were still quite expensive, they were getting more and more attention from the customers. The technology behind LCD monitors was also quickly catching up, while the prices were going down, so in just a few more years the LCD monitors were starting to replace more and more the old CRT technology. And if you are wondering why that is important, then you should be aware of the fact that the first major push of having better stereo 3D experience (better than the anaglyph solutions that were available for years) using liquid crystal shutter glasses has relied heavily on the technology behind the way CRT monitors have worked and especially their ability to function with higher refresh rates like 100Hz or even more. With the LCD monitors running at only 60Hz this has become a problem that lasted for a few years and just recently we had the first 120Hz LCD monitor on the market by Samsung and after that followed by ViewSonic, Acer and Alienware with more to soon follow… companies like LG and Asus are quickly catching up the new wave.
But because of the LCD monitors starting their “invasion” in around 2004-2007, Nvidia kind of left off the support for stereo 3D as the interest in the technology has also gone down, or so it seemed to the normal users. There were no updates for the stereo 3D drivers for quite some time and the new GPUs and technologies like multi-core CPUs were not supported by the old drivers and the company was being silent about S3D. That kind of disappointed a lot of the enthusiasts that had a bit more specific and actually quite expensive hardware like 3D-capable HMDs that cost them hundreds and even thousands of dollars to buy, as they were no longer usable in stereo 3D mode, although they still worked as normal 2D displays. But in reality Nvidia was kind of busy working on alternative solution, in order to offer yet again the option of stereoscopic 3D gaming with the new hardware available and on an LCD monitor. The results of that work were announced in 2008 with the introduction of their partnership with Zalman and their Trimon series of passive polarized stereoscopic 3D monitors. But at about that time (around 2007) other companies were also starting to work on providing the users with stereoscopic 3D solutions, mainly targeted at gaming, but also supporting videos and photos in 3D format and these are iZ3D and DDD (Dynamic Digital Depth). iZ3D has introduced their own unique approach by creating a specific dual LCD panel monitor with stereo 3D support and the software to go with it, but their driver was even further developed to offer support for other 3D solutions too. DDD and their TriDef solution was more targeted at passive polarized solutions, but has also been expanded to support other stereo 3D setups. And later in 2008 Nvidia had another interesting announcement, this time of their new product called GeForce 3D Vision, that was actually a pair of LC shutter glasses capable of working with the new 120Hz LCD monitor announced by Samsung and also of course with CRT displays and even with the 3D-capable 120Hz DLP projectors and 3D-ready DLP TVs. It seemed that Nvidia foresaw the growing interest in stereo 3D and was starting to push the technology more seriously even before the movie Avatar made its huge success and thus really helped in jumpstarting the interest in stereo 3D on a worldwide level. In 2009 AMD (ATI) has also started talking more seriously about stereo 3D, although they were partnering kind of “silently” with companies like iZ3D even before that. You should be aware of the fact that the Nvidia stereo 3D solutions are designed to work only on the company’s GPUs, whereas the solutions provided by iZ3D and DDD are multifunctional, meaning that then can work on both Nvidia and AMD (ATI) hardware and why not even others.
In 2009 everyone was talking a lot about the bright future of the stereo 3D technologies and solutions, more and more companies were starting to get interested in it and were working hard to prepare different products. On the 3D-capable TV market the company Mitsubishi has been the pioneer and already offering a big portfolio of 3D-ready DLP HDTVs and continuing to improve and develop their product line, and other brands like Samsung for example just kind of trying out with one or two products to test the market. But the real boom in the interest about “everything 3D” was going on around the 3D movie by James Cameron called Avatar and when it finally premiered in cinemas in December 2009 it immediately became a huge hit. Then after that during CES 2010 at the beginning of 2010 it was almost all about 3D technology with a lot of companies showing their upcoming next generation of 3D-capable TV sets, talking about the future of in-home 3D with Blu-ray 3D and so on. And now, with some of the first 3D HDTV and Blu-ray 3D products already on the market and more expected in the summer we are facing one serious issue, which was kind of expected all along. We already have 3D-capable hardware and more is soon to come, but we are still lacking the more important component and that one is the 3D content to see on this new hardware. This is the reason why some companies like Sony for example are not in a hurry to have their 3D-ready HDTVs on the market, as they want not only to have the hardware ready, but to also provide some 3D content to watch on it.
Back to the PC and the games available for it, we already know that they are actually a quite important factor when we are talking about 3D content as they are quite ready to be played in stereo 3D mode. So you see, actually on the PC we already do have a lot of 3D content available – almost all of the games are quite capable to be transformed and displayed in stereo 3D mode with the right software solution like 3D Vision, iZ3D or DDD TriDef. And on a computer that has some sort of a stereo 3D setup you do have a lot of content available in terms of games and you can enjoy it even at this very moment, so the question that arises here is why not play the same content on the 3D HDTV? Well, here comes the other issue, although the new wave of 3D-capable TV sets relies on the HDMI 1.4(a) specification and more specifically the stereo 3D features defined in it, there are still a lot of things left non-standardized. So at this time you still cannot easily connect your computer to the new 3D-ready TV and play 3D content on it from the PC. This kind of sounds stupid, right? I mean you would expect to be able to take advantage of the most widely available stereo 3D content you currently have (the computer games), but in the end you still can’t. However Nvidia is already working on a solution called 3DTV Play, which will allow people to connect their PCs to their new 3D TV sets over HDMI and play games on the big screen in stereo 3D mode. The 3DTV Play software is expected to be available pretty soon, and I suppose other companies will soon follow in Nvidia’s footsteps to also provide some sort of solution for this issue. So are we finally in for a bright future for stereo 3D or not, the time can only tell, but at least it will be quite interesting to observe how things develop in the coming months and years for 3D.
And in the end to try to summarize things a bit and to try to explain why now may finally be the right time for the 3D to stay and become a mainstream product for everyone – at home, on the move, in the cinema and just about everywhere where there is need for it. First of all the digital technology that we currently have allows us to have all kinds of 3D content and the means to display it on different devices in an easy and not so expensive way (as the technologies become more and more common and widely adopted the prices will drop, making 3D even more affordable). Of course we need to have 3D content to watch and this is still somewhat of a problem, but things are also greatly improving and more and more stereo 3D content will soon be available. And we already have a lot of games on the PC that can be played in stereo 3D mode which greatly helps, but we also need movies and live broadcasts of different events done in 3D and we need them done right! You should be well aware of the fact that the stereo 3D technology is just that – a technology giving us a means to record and display some content in stereo, creating the feeling of real volume. But we need that technology applied right in order to create a more believable virtual world inside a game or a movie, or to actually “put us” in the front row of a sports stadium and so on. We don’t need “cheap” 3D tricks to briefly impress us, but at the same time giving us stupid story in a movie or providing a flat and uncomfortable 3D experience and at the same time trying to convince us how great it actually is. If you don’t have a story that can benefit form 3D in a movie, then there is no point in making the movie in 3D and the same goes live broadcasts of sport events and all other things that somebody might think will look cool in 3D. If you are going to produce stereo 3D content that people will like, you need to produce it right, otherwise we might yet again waste the opportunity of the 3D technology becoming widely adopted and wait for some more years.