updated 9/26/2011 11:18:49 AM ET 2011-09-26T15:18:49

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

Glasses-free live 3-D TV production is not only possible, but affordable, if German researchers get their way .

The technology for glasses-free 3-D television, known as autostereoscopy, already exists, although it's still developing. The display works by using special optical foils that 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 3-D 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 3-D 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 3-D 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. That virtual view rendering is fairly fast in the lab, but not quite at the speed needed 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.

Markus Aha is a 3-D 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 3-D innovation center in Berlin.

"The sooner the productions are glasses-free, the sooner the market will open up for 3-D 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 it’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," he said.

While consumers are waiting for better TV monitors, Aha has seen glasses-free 3-D 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 3-D transmission. Live cultural events and concerts are also at the top of the list.

The global market for 3-D 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, especially in Europe, keep striving to improve the 3-D TV viewing experience.

Zilly says he thinks that once viewers have 3-D 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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