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updated 9/26/2011 8:19:01 AM ET 2011-09-26T12:19:01

For the relatively few 3D TV owners out there, content is limited. In Europe, 3D TV is catching on but because of the post-production work needed, live 3D broadcasts are extremely rare and viewers still need to don goofy glasses for it. But that may soon change

German researchers have found a way to make glasses-free live 3D TV production not only possible but affordable.

The technology for glasses-free 3D television, known as autostereoscopy already exists, although it's still developing. The display works by using special optical foil which show different images to each eye, tricking viewers' brains into seeing pop-out images. To generate a high-quality effect, numerous camera angles of each shot are needed, making the production process extremely daunting. The higher the number of grayscale images, the better the 3D quality.

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"It's not very practical to put eight or nine or 20 cameras on the set," said Frederik Zilly, manager for the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute’s 3D analyzer project in Berlin. The cost, weight, power consumption, and bandwidth requirements for autostereoscopic videos are incredible, he added. "That's where we thought, OK, we need to create something."

Zilly's team already developed a stereoscopic analyzer dubbed STAN that corrects standard 3D images in real-time to make live broadcasts possible. Their new system is an extension of STAN that can generate up to 25 views of the same scene from slightly different viewpoints, which is needed for effective glasses-free 3D. This virtual view rendering is fairly fast in the lab but not quite at the speed needed for transmitting in real-time for live broadcasting, Zilly said.


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The Fraunhofer project team recently presented its autostereoscopic technology at the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam. Their current version works offline, but Zilly hopes to present a real-time version of the broadcast technology at next year's convention.

The researchers are working with a European consortium called MUSCADE, which loosely stands for "multimedia scalable 3D for Europe." The consortium, funded by the European Commission, aims to create a standard, scalable format and advance 3D technology in general. The project includes several satellite providers that Zilly says could broadcast live autostereoscopic TV shows if the Fraunhofer system is successful.

"It's more of a test case or a proof-of-concept to demonstrate that it works," Zilly said of the system. "Once the production tools become mass-market products, then it will be affordable for all kinds of production."

Markus Aha is a 3D TV producer as well as the founder and CEO of Aha International Media in Berlin. He knows Zilly and the Fraunhofer work well, in part because they are both part of a group that is collaborating on a new 3D innovation center in Berlin.

"The sooner the productions are glasses-free, the sooner the market will open up for 3D content," he said. At the moment, however, consumer electronics companies are still developing autostereoscopic displays. Aha points out that Toshiba presented a high-definition LCD prototype earlier this year, but that’s not on the market yet.

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"I think we're still looking at two years of development before this generation of monitors is out on the market."

While consumers are waiting for better TV monitors, Aha has seen glasses-free 3D monitors used in Europe for digital advertising. Aha also saw a test in the UK where rugby matches shot in stereo 3D were converted for autostereoscopic monitors in sports bars. While it’s not the high quality you’d want at home, he said, sporting events are considered among the best programming for 3D transmission. Live cultural events and concerts are at the top of the list as well.

The global market for 3D TVs is fairly small and the phenomenon has been derided as a fad. Consumers have also expressed concern about eye strain and nausea from constantly watching shows this way. Despite the hurdles, researchers and R&D departments, especially in Europe, keep striving to improve the 3D TV viewing experience.

Zilly says he thinks that once viewers have 3D TV monitors that are comfortable to watch, they’ll want more. "It's comparable to adding color to what was in black and white before," he said. "I think that 3D without glasses will be the future."

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