Greetings from Berlin – yes, the one in Germany. I'm here at the IFA show (the initials are something long and unpronounceable German), the Consumer Electronics Show of Europe.
Arguably the highlight of this year's IFA show was the announcement last Thursday of the first large screen 3D HDTV that doesn't require you to wear glasses, the 55-inch LED LCD 55ZL2, due to go on sale in December at least in Europe.
I got a gander at the glasses-free 55LZ2 in the Toshiba booth (and I got a gander at a lot of other cool gear, which I'll be bringing to you all this week, starting tomorrow). And after the gander, I can report that if a version of the 55ZL2 ever hits these shores, avoid it. This glasses-free 3D technology should be verboten, kaput.
First, the 55ZL2 has none of the floating-in-space/it's-coming-right-at-me! effects 3D is known for. Sure, the video has depth, but it's like it left the 2D station but ran out of coal a couple of miles out of town on its way to 3D.
Second, the image is a step-backwards in resolution. Toshiba has removed the glasses from your face and effectively slapped them on the TV in the form of a filter that refracts or deflects the light from the LCD panel behind it to produce distinct left eye-right eye images, which creates the illusion of 3D.
But you can see the filter, which makes it seem you're looking through a mesh or screen door or something, because you can see the pixel images. You'd have to sit about twice as far from your HDTV as you do now in order not to make the dots comprising the video disappear.
Finally, the filter is comprised of essentially nine segments that split the left/right image. It's not enough. If you shift your position a couple of inches either way, the 3D disappears and the image becomes fuzzy.
The 55ZL2 is an answer for glasses-free 3D. It's not the answer. And if the Toshiba 55ZL2 isn't the glasses-free 3D answer, what is?
Hope you won't be sorry you asked.
When will have real glasses-free 3D
Toshiba's on the right track, but it's still more-or-less a technical work-around, sort of the technical equivalent of taking a sheet of plywood and attaching a unicycle to each corner to make a wagon.
3D geniuses have been toiling furiously on building a real wagon…er, real glasses-less 3D, or "autostereoscopic" – a format called MVD (Multiview Video Depth), also called 3DV.
An extension of the current glasses-necessary 3D standard (MVC, Multiview Video Coding), MVD adds extra digital data for "depth" layers to create multi-level stereoscopic images, or "views," that you won't need glasses to watch. The MVD standard is likely to be finished in three years or so.
But two problems remain: filming these multiple views and displaying them.
Currently, you need only two cameras to create a 3D effect, which is why the 3D camcorders you see have two lenses, and which is why Toshiba's approach is a work-around – it's working with unicycles when you need an 18-wheeler.
For MVC autostereoscopic, I'm told you need seven to 21 cameras aimed at whatever you want to be in 3D. For every refraction of light, you need a new camera angle.
Right now, a three-camera shoot is considered expensive. Imagine trying to capture a complicated chase sequence with 21 cameras, each having to change position whenever the light angle changes – which will be every half-second.
Now comes the filter
Once you have the MVD footage, an HDTV has to be capable of "projecting" these multiple depth layers, or views, through a filter placed over the screen to create the glasses-free 3D image – which is where Toshiba is starting.
There are two types of autostereoscopic filters: a slit picket fence-like filter called parallax barrier, a circular filter called lenticular.
Like the Toshiba filter, you see artifacts of their ridged or textured physical filters, like on the Toshiba 55ZL2. This filter also would effect the quality of a 2D picture, which no one wants.
So the filters have to essentially disappear, be digitized by creating a second or even third LCD panel so it can be turned on for 3D and off for 2D.
But additional LCD panels means more expensive. So even if the poindexters solve all the aforementioned problems, it'll take years to drive down the costs so you and I can afford to buy one.
More resolution, please!
And even if all this happens, a perfect low-cost LCD 3D filter won't eliminate the need for more resolution.
Glasses-free 3D HDTVs providing the same level of 2D quality we get today may require so-called 4K x 2K (or just 4K2K) – 4096 x 2160 pixel ultra high-definition resolution displays, which produce four times the resolution of today's top 1920 x 1080 HDTVs – another technology years away from the consumer market.
At IFA, Toshiba demonstrated a 4K2K display, what they call Quad FHD (full high definition); Sharp one-upped Toshiba with an 85-inch 8K4K set, which I'll have more about later this week.
But we won't have real glasses-free 3D with both resolution and the 3D effects we're used to now won't be ready for Best Buy buying for years and years – and years.