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Make any TV 3D? This converter will do it

Gene Dolgoff planted the seed in Gene Roddenberry’s imagination that blossomed into the forward-thinking Holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He invented and built the world’s first LCD projector. He worked on the development of the HDTV system as we know it today and, in his current role at 3-D Vision, he’s revolutionized lenticular imaging technologies. He also developed the 3-D Vision process, a low-cost analog-to-anaglyphic 3D that offers improved optical effects with none of the color loss or eye strain that is typically associated with the old method. He took it public with the Halloween 2010 edition of The Rachel Ray Show in 3D, distributing cardboard-and-plastic glasses with TV Guide subscriptions.

For his next trick, Dolgoff wants to deliver digital stereoscopic 3D to every living room using a low-cost device that doesn’t require you to upgrade your TV. Even if said TV is a crusty, old tube set that can’t even push past a 480i video mode. In short, he wants every TV to be a 3DTV. He’s established a Fundable to get the project going — complete with a competition built around having a community-sourced design for the device — and he may well turn to Kickstarter for additonal funding once the groundwork is established.

Dolgoff envisions a converter, a small device that will connect to your TV and, thanks to the magic of image-processing software, convert what you see to 3D. You’ll need special glasses (included with the converter), just like you would with any other consumer 3DTV. The aim here is to offer an affordable alternative upgrading your TV set, a commendable goal when you consider that many of us already stepped up to HDTVs before 3DTVs were introduced as the Next Big Thing.

I was immediately doubtful when I read the pitch. After seeing it in person, my doubts were proven to be unfounded. This tech works. And it works exceptionally well.

3D conversion that works

I spent a few hours visiting with Dolgoff at his 3-D Vision lab on Long Island. First he showed off some of the aforementioned Rachel Ray stuff which, while impressive for its grand-scale delivery, doesn’t come close in terms of quality to the 3D tech that is in use as of 2012. Eventually we moved on to the converter, which currently exists only in prototype form. The unit is massive, and almost too heavy to lift. It houses multiple fans, which makes for a loud demonstration. It works though, and Dolgoff promises that the mass-produced version of this converter will be much, much smaller, the sort of thing that could fit easily into anyone’s media center.

First we took a look at a few things on an old Sony WEGA flatscreen, a TV set that went up to a whopping (at the time) 480p. A DVD of The Wizard of Oz, a Blu-ray of Bee Movie, and a PlayStation 3 version of NCAA Football 13 served as the testing materials. There’s an unavoidable, minimally distracting, flicker that you get when watching the converted 3D on a CRT screen, but the optical effect is immediately noticeable. In every case, the converter capably translated the depth of the image into a 3D display.

The flickering disappears when you step up to modern-day HDTV, though depending on which set you use you do see some minor ghosting. Again, it’s not distracting to the point that it draws you away from the convincing 3D effect. I played a race in MotorStorm Apocalypse and, once again, the added depth that the converter offers is immediately noticeable. It was the next step in the test that really drove home the potential of this device, however.

Dolgoff switched us over to a live television broadcast. The converter software works exactly as it does with content pulled from a piece of physical media. Old-style 2D cartoons — such as an old Looney Tunes episode that we came across — don’t really convert, but any true video or CG animation does. A local high-school marching band’s performance stood out in particular, especially during long shots that took in the entire field. Same goes for Olympic soccer, which happened to be airing at the time. Given how few properly 3D broadcasts there are, the converter even makes a place for itself in 3DTV-equipped households.

The effect perhaps isn’t as pronounced as native 3D content that was actually shot with stereoscopic cameras. This is particularly true in the case of effects that seem to pop out of the screen. The converter does a brilliant job with depth, but the more gimmicky stuff really comes out more with content that was actually crafted for 3D. The converter can actually handle that too; send a 3D video signal through  the box, and it will process it.

It’s software doing the heavy lifting, as Dolgoff explained. “It takes the two-dimensional input video signal and it looks at two frames at a time. It looks at brightness, contrast, color saturation, sharpness, position in the frame, because as the depth goes back, all of these things decrease. When you have motion, the occlusion of background objects by foreground objects also gives a lot of information,” he said, offering up a familiar example.

“If you’re looking out the window of a train, the phone poles are going the real fast, the buildings are going a little slower, the mountains are going real slow, and the moon isn’t moving at all. The The further back you are, the slower the motion. So all of these different factors are taken into account to create the stereo pair, and it’s done in a way that is consistent with the algorithms that we have in our brains, so when we look at it we can reconstruct the three-dimensional scene with accurate 3D information in it.”

A lifelong quest to record reality

It’s helpful to know where Dolgoff is coming from to really appreciate the passion he’s got for this work. The advances he’s made in 3D are but one step in a lifelong pursuit of a much grander goal. “When I was three years old, I remember very clearly looking around and saying, ‘Wow, look at this!'” He gestures at the general world surrounding us before continuing. “I wanted to record it and play it back. So my life became all about that.”

“I made my first 3DTV in 1963, and it was put into the Brooklyn museum. It was a stereoscopic CRT. I started doing these lenticular 3D pictures in ’63. Holography in ’64. In ’68, I got the idea to use a light valve to modulate an external source instead of a CRT, and I then had the basis of the LCD projector. It took me until 1970 to make it digital and use liquid crystals as my digital light valve. It took a long time to really get the prototype finished, but I did finished the world’s first digital LCD projector in April of ’84. I have it here [in the lab], and it still works.”

“I’ve always been involved in imaging and different ways of recording and playing back reality as faithfully as possible, and I’m still on that quest.”

In essence, Dolgoff envisions a Holodeck future. Planting the seed for that Strek Trek innovation with its creator speaks to this big picture goal. He has working technology, in his lab right now that delivers glasses-free 3D on a heavily modified CRT TV set. In an opposite corner, there’s a holographic display unit, once again a fully functional one. It’s the goal of the long game, but the technology isn’t there yet on a mass scale.

“Movies are great, and they’re making a billion dollars a picture sometimes, but consumer 3D is not moving so fast. It’s a chicken-egg problem,” Dolgoff explained. “There’s just not enough content out there for people to justify buying a 3D set, and without an installed base of a lot of 3D set owners, there’s not enough money for [entertainment companies] to produce more 3D content. So there’s maybe 4 million 3D sets sold in this country. It’s kind of going slowly.”

“My whole initial thrust was [the knowledge] that we can’t get everyone to buy a new TV, that’s going to be a logjam. So let’s find a way to make everybody able to see 3D right away with whatever they have.  That’s what this technology was designed to do. Once we get it out there, it’s going to get… a lot more people watching 3D on their 2D sets and a lot more people buying 3D sets. That’ll start increasing the installed  base, which will then provide the incentive for more content to be made in 3D. And then the 3D consumer field will really take off.”

Dolgoff pegs the lifespan for 3D as we know it, with the glasses and such, at around 5 to 10 years. Glasses-free displays will follow, but the ultimate goal is consumer holography. Not only do you lose the glasses, you lose the screen too. The barrier between actual reality and recorded reality slips away. “The basis of holography is the interference of energy, and that’s the way reality works,” Dolgoff explained. “So we’re just playing back reality the way reality works. That’ll be the next step.”

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