To continue our “Watching 3D Movies at Home” series of articles and interviews we sat down with John Oliver the CTO and Founder of Aspen Media Products, LLC, (www.aspenmediaproducts.com). John has over 15 years of experience leading teams to design, build, and support integrated solutions for the home entertainment, education, PC gaming, commercial, and government markets. Aspen designs and builds a family of 3D Ready multi-media digital players for the home entertainment, education, business, and PC gaming markets. During CES 2010 earlier this year, it introduced its 5th generation of media players and 3rd generation of 3D media players, which are specifically designed to support the full range of 3D video and audio formats and technologies. Aspen is a privately held Texas based Limited Liability Company founded in 2005.
Bijan Tehrani: Could you explain from a technical standpoint how 3D TV works?
John Oliver: There are a few technologies that are on the market right now; however, the concepts are pretty much the same so I’ll just start with the basics. The concept of 3D is to display two images on a 3D Ready TV, projector, or monitor and then get each of your eyes to see the images separately, which in turn gives the viewer the “camera perspective” as if you were exactly where the camera was at the time of filming. In animation and video games, this “camera” view is used for lights and shadows that do not occur naturally. Likewise, video games have been encoded with 3D for a long time now, and thanks to the advances of 3D today users are able to become the “camera” in the game, creating a very immersive experience. So by having your left and right eye seeing two different images from the same display you get “stereo,” which can be used to create depth both in and away from the screen.
Right now there are three main technologies that are being used by display manufacturers. One technology is called checkerboard, which creates a checkerboard across the screen. So if you imagine a checkerboard being red and black all of the black squares would be your left eye and all the red squares would be your right eye. Another technology is called page-flipping, which does just what it says, it flips the image you see every 60th of a second for each eye, totaling 120 flips per second. This is why 120hz is required for some display devices, especially LCDs and projectors. The third, and currently most common technology, is passive, or polarization, which bends the light you see to create two separate images. This is most commonly used in large theaters or small monitors.
Regardless of the display technology, the content must originate in some form of a stereo file (left and right eye filmed, or created separately). Then the image for the left eye is fed to the viewer’s left eye and the image for the right eye is displayed to the viewer’s right eye. There have been some attempts to standardize parallax barrier technology, which would enable someone to receive this information without wearing glasses, however this technology has many challenges to overcome (for any screen larger than say 22” – the new hand-held 3D player devices have very small screens focused for a single viewer and are able to overcome the larger display challenges) using such creative design as bending the screen or using multiple barriers – all of which are several years out before they might become available for the consumer. So for the current time and near future, the answer is to wear 3D Glasses.
For most of the technology on the market the glasses of choice are called “LCD shutter glasses,” which actively “shutter” 60 times per eye, syncing to the “flipped or checkerboarded” images your display is producing. The shutter glasses enable you to see the left image in your left eye and the right image in your right eye without seeing both of them at the same time. Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Sony, Sharp, BenQ, Vivitek, Samsung, and many other manufacturers have all decided to go with Shutter glass technology because they feel that it is safer and does not cause people headaches. The oldest technology was called anaglyph, in which movies were colored differently and anyone who has seen it would quickly say that it wasn’t high quality 3D. The next technology that came out was a polarized version of the anaglyph technology – it is better technology, but can occasionally cause viewers headaches and it also presents a generally poor quality 3D. Theaters in Europe use shutter glasses exclusively. Not only do shutter glasses not give viewers headaches, but they are also very green friendly and people tend to keep the glasses instead of throwing them away.
One of the things we have identified at Aspen is that because manufacturers use different technologies in their respective TV or projector designs, if you take one brand’s Blu-ray player and another brand’s glasses and try to use them with a display of yet another brand, then they often will not work together or are difficult to setup and operate. So we try to be more of an agnostic company meaning that our player will work with any DLP 3D TV or projector and we recommend and sell XpanD model 102 glasses that will work with any DLP 3D TV or DLP projector currently on the market and will sell their new universal IR glasses that will be available later this year that will support the different embedded IR 3D TVs that many manufacturers are introducing – for the latter situation our current system already universally supports IR. This works well for consumers because they typically do not stay with the same TV or projector, upgrading every few years – so with our technology they won’t have to re-buy their 3D player. For instance when HDTV came out, people bought a Blu-ray player and then six months later had to go out and spend more money to keep the product up to date – we are working to avoid that inconvenience to the consumer by having a fully upgradeable system through simple remote download of software that will allow them to migrate from system to system. I think that in about five years everyone will be using the same 3D technology so we designed our system to be agnostic to the technology and capable of easily upgrading with changes in 3D technology.
BT: I get the impression that the new Samsung system has the ability to convert 2D into 3D, is this correct?
JO: I have not seen that personally, however I know that our player enables you to playback DVDs, photos, video, PC games, Internet and more in 3D, even if it originated as 2D.
BT: There are TV manufacturers such as Mitsubishi that started very early with their 3D technology. They claim that their technology was as good back then as it is now, is that true?
JO: Yes that would be true; you can watch a 2007 model Mitsubishi 3D TV and get a very similar 3D effect as you would from a 2010 model Mitsubishi – however, they have improved the color and resolution quality, which does enhance their overall viewing experience as well as their 3D effect.
BT: How exactly does the system work in terms of 3D glasses and 3D TVs or projectors?
JO: Mitsubishi TVs and almost all 3D projectors, use Texas Instruments DLP 3D technology, which does not require an external IR emitter. XpanD, who is our 3D glasses partner, offers their model 102 3D glasses that are designed specifically to support DLP 3D technology, so together we do not require an emitter and automatically synchronize with the 3D stereo images when the viewer looks at the DLP 3D TV or projector using XpanD’s glasses. Many of the newer TVs have embedded IR emitters to synch the stereo 3D images, which we already support – for these our partner XpanD is introducing later this year universal IR glasses that will synch with these TVs, so again, together we provide a universal 3D solution for our customers.
BT: Is the concern of getting headaches an issue with these types of glasses?
JO: I’ve not heard of anyone getting a headache with shutter glasses because your brain is not doing any more work than it normally does to view an image. A lot of the theatres in the country are still using polarized glasses, the cheap plastic glasses that they give you and you can still get a headache with those.
BT: It seems that the benefit of Aspen’s approach is that it is not limited especially when it comes to Blu-ray DVD players and PC gaming. Can you talk about some of the advantages of using your system?
JO: Our system is a full function media center, enabling our customers to record, download, catalog, playback and stream from the Internet movies, videos, music, pictures, and information – and as a media center, it also plays Blu-ray, DVDs, and CDs as well as you can play over 3,000 PC games in 3D, view Google Earth or Bing Virtual Earth in 3D, display photos in 3D, and watch 2D DVDs or recorded movies in 3D through our on the fly 2D to 3D conversion. We also stream 3D TV from the Internet, for example people who had our system were able to watch this year’s Masters Golf tournament in 3D, and are able to watch World Cup matches that are streamed over the Internet in either 3D (if they have a 3D TV or projector and use 3D glasses) or 2D.
BT: What other 3D content is available on the Internet right now that would justify the investment into one of your systems.
JO: Our entry 3D gaming system is about 1,200 dollars, and our entry 3D media center system is $999, which provides everything I previously described but 3D PC gaming. 3D content for both for the near-term will primarily be sporting events and movies streamed over the Internet in 3D, broadcast over cable TV, or played from a 3D DVD or soon Blu-ray 3D – for our 3D gaming players you also have over 3,000 PC games available as I mentioned earlier. For gamers, our line of 3D PC gaming players really sell themselves, because they can play games that other players can’t and gamers can choose the price / performance they want from our full line of 3D gaming players. At Infocomm, which is the largest international professional audio / video conference and trade show, we introduced 3D gaming on an AMD Radeon 5870 with a Vivitek projector, this was running an AMD 6 core processor and really showed off our stereo 3D gaming capabilities.
BT: What do you think is the future of 3D?
JO: In terms of broadcast television, five to ten years from now I think most people will get their TV over the Internet, which our technology already supports TV over the Internet. In the meantime we have a 4 tuner card from Ceton that handles 4 streams of cable channels with full record, pause, and playback capability.
BT: Where do you see 3D in about 2-3 years?
JO: Similar to HD today, I believe 3D will become standard on almost all TV’s and projectors. Today, in addition to viewing 3D sporting events or movies streaming over the Internet, if you have Comcast or AT&T’s U-verse you can play the content right into our box, and we hope to have 2D to 3D conversion pretty soon, as well as to support DirecTV. I think that all of the big providers will have a series of 3D channels. Aspen will continue to migrate and evolve our systems to not only stay current, but maintain our 3D leadership as we have since we introduced our first generation 3D players over 2 years ago.
BT: AT&T claims that they are offering high quality Internet TV, what do you see in the future in that market?
JO: AT&T is definitely aware of the modern market and as I said earlier I believe that content for TVs and projectors will be delivered primarily over the Internet in the future.