As striking as it is, the illusion of depth
now routinely offered by 3D movies is a paltry facsimile of a true 3D visual
experience. In the real world, as you move around an object, your perspective
on it changes. But in a movie theater showing a 3D movie, everyone in the
audience has the same, fixed perspective—and has to wear cumbersome glasses, to
Despite impressive recent advances, holographic
television, which would present images that vary with varying perspectives,
probably remains some distance in the future. But in a new paper, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab’s Camera Culture group offers a new
approach to multiple-perspective, glasses-free 3D that could prove much more
practical in the short term.
Instead of the complex hardware required to
produce holograms, the Media Lab system, dubbed a Tensor Display, uses several
layers of liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), the technology currently found in
most flat-panel televisions. To produce a convincing 3D illusion, the LCDs
would need to refresh at a rate of about 360 times a second, or 360 Hz. Such
displays may not be far off: LCD televisions that boast 240-Hz refresh rates
have already appeared on the market, just a few years after 120-Hz televisions
made their debut.
“Holography works, it’s beautiful, nothing
can touch its quality,” says Douglas Lanman, a postdoctoral researcher at the
Media Lab and one of the paper’s coauthors. “The problem, of course, is that
holograms don’t move. To make them move, you need to create a hologram in real
time, and to do that, you need … little tiny pixels, smaller than anything we
can build at large volume at low cost. So the question is, what do we have now?
We have LCDs. They’re incredibly mature, and they’re cheap.”
Layers of research
The Nintendo 3DS—a portable, glasses-free 3D gaming device introduced last
year—uses two layered LCD screens to produce the illusion of depth, with the
bottom screen simply displaying alternating dark and light bands. Two slightly
offset images, which represent the different perspectives of the viewer’s two
eyes, are sliced up and interleaved on the top screen. The dark bands on the
bottom screen block the light coming from the display’s backlight in such a way
that each eye sees only the image intended for it.
This technique is in fact more than a
century old and produces a stereoscopic image, the type of single-perspective
illusion familiar from 3D movies. The bottom screen displays the same pattern
of light and dark bands no matter the image on the top screen. But Lanman,
graduate student Matthew Hirsch and professor Ramesh Raskar, who leads the
Camera Culture group, reasoned that by tailoring the patterns displayed on the
top and bottom screens to each other, they could filter the light emitted by
the display in more sophisticated ways, creating an image that would change
with varying perspectives. In a project they dubbed HR3D, they developed
algorithms for generating the top and bottom patterns as well as a prototype
display, which they presented at Siggraph Asia in 2010.
The problem is that, whereas a stereoscopic
system such as a 3D movie projector or the 3DS needs to display only two
perspectives on a visual scene—one for each eye—the system the Media Lab
researchers envisioned had to display hundreds of perspectives in order to
accommodate a moving viewer. That was too much information to display at once,
so for every frame of 3D video, the HR3D screen in fact flickered 10 times,
displaying slightly different patterns each time. With this approach, however,
producing a convincing 3D illusion would require displays with a 1,000-Hz
To get the refresh rate down to 360 Hz, the
Tensor Display adds another LCD screen, which displays yet another pattern.
That makes the problem of calculating the patterns exponentially more complex,
however. In solving that problem, Raskar, Lanman, and Hirsch were joined by
Gordon Wetzstein, a new postdoctoral researcher in the Camera Culture group.
The researchers’ key insight was that,
while some aspects of a scene change with the viewing angle, some do not. The
pattern-calculating algorithms exploit this natural redundancy, reducing the
amount of information that needs to be sent to the LCD screens and thus
improving the resolution of the final image.
CT in reverse
As it turns out, the math behind the Tensor Display is similar to that behind
computed tomography, or CT, an X-ray technique used to produce 3D images of
internal organs. In a CT scan, a sensor makes a slow circle around the subject,
making a series of measurements of X-rays passing through the subject’s body.
Each measurement captures information about the composition of tissues at
different distances from the sensor; finally, all the information is stitched
together into a composite 3D image.
“The way I like to think about it is, we’re
building a patient whose CT scan is the view,” Lanman says.
At Siggraph, the Media Lab researchers will
demonstrate a prototype Tensor Display that uses three LCD panels. They’ve also
developed another prototype that uses only two panels, but between the panels
they introduce a sheet of lenses that refract light left and right. The lenses
were actually developed for stereoscopic display systems; an LCD panel beneath
the lenses alternately displays one image intended for the left eye, which is
diffracted to the left, and another for the right eye, which is diffracted to the
right. The MIT display also takes advantage of the ability to project different
patterns in different directions, but the chief purpose of the lenses is to
widen the viewing angle of the display. With the three-panel version, the 3D
illusion is consistent within a viewing angle of 20 degrees, but with the
refractive-lens version, the viewing angle expands to 50 degrees.