In television manufacturing circles, as well as the world at large, the production of 3D displays is widely thought to be a flop. The trend reached its peak at CES 2013, but then fizzled out with a nonexistent presence at CES 2014 and 2015.
If you've ever tried on a pair of 3D glasses, you may not be surprised to discover that the decidedly uncool eyewear has been a major impediment to wholesale consumer adoption of 3D tech. Apparently, no matter what manufacturers do, there is just no way to make those suckers look stylish or feel comfortable.
But Stream TV Networks, with assistance from partners like Haier, Cello, Hisense, and Pegatron, has found a way to address this problem: ditch the 3D glasses. The company showcased its new Ultra-D technology—which allows for a 3D viewing experience sans those pesky glasses—at CES 2016.
So how does Ultra-D work?
With Ultra-D, the proprietary software and hardware components work together to perform 3D rendering on any content, whether or not it's been previously formatted for 3D. This feat of engineering is accomplished by mounting additional panels, backlighting, and electronics on top of a regular display. The 3D rendering takes place in real time.
But there's another way to use the technology, which Inception Visual, a partner of Stream TV Networks, will be trying out sometime this year. In this method, the Ultra-D technology is applied to the content ahead of time, then transmitted verbatim to an Ultra-D display.
According to Eric Sherman, president of Inception Visual, a live-streaming Ultra-D version of the enormously popular program Impact Wrestling will be shown to test audiences later this year. Sherman boasts that the show is ideal for testing out a live stream. "It would look so incredible in 3D," he says.
The software really does the heavy lifting, as it takes in pixel metadata concerning depth from 2D or 3D content and reproduces an image that is emphasized away from or toward the viewer as appropriate. This metadata is inherent in both filmed and computer-generated content. Zach Lehmen, the Games Director of Stream TV Networks, clarifies that the data Ultra-D uses to do its 3D rendering can even come from 2D content: “We’ll still see depth in 2D content," he explains. "If you think about a 2D game like old-school Mario, it’s still 3D in the sense that you have a [background] plane, and you have Mario. So we figure that depth. We shoot into the scene, in real time.”
What can it do?
While the TV applications for Ultra-D are the most obvious, AT&T—in partnership with Stream TV Networks—has been pursuing another avenue of Ultra-D content: 3D signage. 3D signage has been used to incredible effect in the hospitality and retail industries, as the novel tech sparks customer curiosity to increase engagement with the product.
Sherman has declared this use of Ultra-D tech a rousing success. “It captures people’s attention because of the unique format, and holds them. They’re watching the whole thing," he says. Sherman quotes the increase in audience engagement at a 45% increase in time spent over 2D digital signage.
In addition to digital signage, another type of content that Stream TV Networks is adapting for Ultra-D is PC and console games. Lehmen pointed out the Ultra-D PC monitor, which can be used both in gaming and in 3D signage capacities. To produce the corresponding Ultra-D content, Lehmen announced that Ultra-D can now support Unity, a development platform for building and designing 2D and 3D games. His team showcased three demos using Unity and Ultra-D. These demos emphasize the compatibility of the Ultra-D technology with other display advancements, like physical rendering and HDR. These three demos are meant to show the flexibility and widespread applicability of Ultra-D to a variety of different gaming environments.
These Ultra-D applications are gaining momentum, as Stream TV Networks plans to have platform support with 6 of the 8 major gaming producers, as well as the XBox One, PS4, and Wii U gaming systems, in 2016.
As for the potential for this technology to appeal to the masses, Stream TV Networks COO Raja Rajan anticipates that Ultra-D is going to gain popularity quickly: “You don’t have the [3D] glasses, so you can have your whole family there. You don’t need glasses for every person. You don’t have to invest in this and put it in there and wait for enough of the format to come in. You can watch everything you’re watching now in 2D and 3D, and you can even adjust [the amount of 3D] to suit you. That’s why we think it’s going to be ubiquitous. People that don’t like 3D in the theaters? They say that [Ultra-D] is much more natural and manageable.”
When I stopped by to chat at CES, Rajan proved his point by showing me how the 3D levels can be changed from “non-existent” to “close to real life” to “bad drug trip” with the touch of a button on the proprietary remote. The interface is intuitive, and seemed easy to use.
If all goes well, Ultra-D displays will be available for purchase later this year. Still, it's anyone's guess as to whether Ultra-D will actually catch on with the masses—after all, 3D tech doesn't have the most successful track record.