Philips Touts "3D Intelligent Display" Technology

Recent 3D Imax releases including Monster House and Superman Returns have proved there is, for the moment, a market for 3D content in movie theaters. But what about at home, or in retail spaces? Philips held a series of press briefings in New York last week to tout the 3D displays that it hopes will have an impact on digital signage, content creation, and video games.
The two displays Philips showed were a 42-inch widescreen LCD display and its decidedly smaller brother, a 20-inch 4×3 computer-sized version. The larger screen is optimized for a viewing distance of about 3 meters, although a spectator has considerable latitude to move forward, back, and sideways without losing the 3D effect completely. (Philips claims the screen has better than a 100-degree viewing angle.) Interestingly, some effects were even more striking on the smaller screen – a rippling flag on the computer monitor looked like something you should be able to reach out and touch.
2D Plus Depth
Here's how they work. None of the image processing takes place beforehand; it happens inside the display, which accepts a DVI input carrying a 2D image plus a "depth map" – in this case, an 8-bit (256-level) representation of depth within that image. (Philips calls this the "2D-plus-depth" format.) The display uses that depth map to create different "views" of the 2D image corresponding to the parallax that would be perceived by human eyes. In all, nine different images are displayed simultaneously. The screen is covered by a series of very thin lenses that diffract the light so that the eyes of an observer will see two different images that create the perception of 3D.

Demonstrating the system, Philips Senior Director of Busines Creation for 3D Solutions Rob de Vogel acknowledged that the 1920×1080 screen's linear resolution is effectively reduced by a factor of 3 as the multiple views are displayed. He said engineering a display like this requires a three-way trade-off among spatial resolution, depth perception, and viewing comfort.

What Philips hopes, along with others who are marketing similar 3D display technology, is that those factors can be balanced to create a compelling experience. (The 3D display lists for $12,000, a significant premium over the cost of its 2D equivalent.) The first obvious market is digital signage – stick a few of these in a retail environment and watch the depth of the image grab the attention of customers. Another significant application could be gaming. Philips has figured out a way to extract a depth map by hijacking the 3D information inside an OpenGL or DirectX graphics card running a computer game, turning a conventional PC shooter into a virtual-reality adventure in real time. (Philips ran a demonstration showing a snippet of gameplay from Call of Duty in 3D.)

So where's the content?
All this detail, of course, forces the big question: How do you create content for this thing? One way is to use existing animation packages and create your own depth map – with a value between 0 and 255 for each pixel in the image – to go along with your CG. (Philips provides a plug-in to let you do this from programs such as 3ds max.) A crude effect, where different graphics layers are placed on several different levels of an image above, say, a video background, can be surprisingly effective.

If you've made a real stereo movie, using two cameras rigged together or rendering a second view in CG, Philips has software that will look at the two images and create a depth map in real time. (Only one of the 2D images, plus the depth map, will be sent to the display.) Also offered are automatic and semi-automatic options for analyzing 2D content and creating image maps on the fly. In a demonstration, this process certainly added depth to the image, but at the expense of clarity. (In one fully-automated conversion of a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp's eyes floated weirdly in front of his face.) Pictures created with a manual touch-up job by a human fared somewhat better, though the 3D effect still wasn't dramatic.

Where's the market? Philips says the 42-inch displays have been used by Coca-Cola, which rented 10 screens for an event in Holland, and by Dutch casinos, who use video as a background for simple graphic overlays that appear to float in front of the screen. The company is working with retail chains – at least four in the U.S. are running tests with focus groups – in anticipation of an announcement of a U.S. deployment in the next two months. The real goal, de Vogel said, is networked signage applications, which involve delivery to many screens at a time.

It's clear that 3D images displayed on a wall-mounted LCD screen today probably have stopping power in a retail environment. The real question is how long will it be before the novelty factor wears off, and what new applications will carry the technology from there? If the 3D gaming functionality works well in real time, that could be a whole new high-end market. (Imagine plugging your Xbox into a TV set that can render any game for you in glasses-free 3D in real time.) And if the market for 3D movies, both new and repurposed, stays strong, it's possible that consumers will eventually embrace display technology that might bring a 3D Star Wars into their own homes.

The challenge for a company that hopes to capitalize on that desire is to figure out a way to distribute 3D content. De Vogel noted that you can do it using existing protocols by encoding the 2D image in MPEG-2 and then including the depth map as auxiliary data in the same transport stream. That's great in theory – but if history is any guide, there's a lot of wrangling in the future of anyone who wants to standardize the delivery of any new kind of content to consumers. Stay tuned.