In recent years several companies have developed 3D computer displays, with results ranging from disappointing to, literally, nauseating. Graphics specialist Nvidia (NVDA) has a new approach that promises to take computing into the third dimension. Video games will be the first to benefit, followed by movies and certain business tasks.
Nvidia's GeForce 3D Vision system ($199) consists of software and special glasses that connect wirelessly to your PC. This approach is called stereoscopic because the computer sends separate images to each eye. Objects in the two images are slightly offset from each other—a gap the brain interprets as depth, resulting in a compelling 3D illusion.
Sharp, LG, and others have fielded a variety of displays that don't require glasses, but they don't work very well. Typically they succeed only if you are planted squarely in front of the screen at a precise distance. And even then, only a small part of the field is in focus.
Nvidia's 3D glasses are a far cry from the vintage red-and-blue specs once used to watch The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Each lens is a liquid-crystal shutter that opens and closes 60 times per second, so that at any time you are seeing through only one eye. The shutters are synchronized to the display, which switches between the left and right images so fast that you can't detect any flicker. The glasses, which can be worn over regular eyeglasses, also seem to dim ambient light, focusing attention on the screen.
One beauty of the Nvidia system is that it can create 3D images from any software that was produced using depth information. Most existing games were created with some level of depth, so they become 3D without any modification. The same is true for 3D computer-assisted design drawings.
Games, of course, long have been at the leading edge of computer technology. Movies are also going 3D, so films on DVD eventually will be viewable with Nvidia gear. I also expect to see more business applications tailored to 3D, such as scientific modeling of complex molecules in the pharmaceutical sector or geologic visualizations used for oil exploration.
One caveat for consumers: You need a fairly high-end desktop to run Nvidia's system, starting with a $300-plus display that refreshes the screen 120 times per second instead of the standard 60. Possibilities include 22-inch monitors from Samsung and ViewSonic and an assortment of projection TVs that use Texas Instruments' DLP technology. You also need a Windows Vista PC with a high-end Nvidia graphics adapter, along with the whole 3D Vision kit, which includes a wireless transmitter used to synchronize the screen with the glasses.
I should add that the picture Nvidia makes possible isn't truly natural 3D. Objects seem to be arranged in several planes at various depths, almost as if you were looking at pictures with a View-Master—if you can remember that far back. But game developers can improve the illusion with better encoding of the depth information. When they create the games specifically for 3D, objects appear to pop out of the screen, as opposed to disintegrating when they hit the front of the display.
Today's 3D films weren't produced with Nvidia in mind. But down the road, programs like GeForce 3D Vision could really bring DVDs of these films to life. Your kids won't want to watch Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix the old way. And you'll probably feel the same when James Cameron releases Avatar, his much heralded 3D movie and game, later this year.