Real 3D Graphics

I've been on vacation this week - and I took last week off too. One of the things I did was to take my kids to a movie called Polar Express. We saw it last year - but this year it has been re-released in IMAX theaters in full 3D.

Lots of games claim to be in 3D - but what you're really seeing is a projection of 3D onto a 2D surface like your monitor. Cues like perspective and occlusion lets your brain figure out (through educated guessing) the spatial relationships. However, we can do better than that. If you look around, you can actually perceive depth around you. If you look with just one eye, the depth perception disappears (and you're back to the two dimensional view again where you guess things based on size, appearance, occlusion, etc.).

The trick to presenting a real 3D view, is to project two different images to the viewer - one for the left eye, and one for the right eye. Objects far away appear in the same place in the two pictures, but objects closer will appear in different places. A finger held right in front of your face obviously looks different from the left eye than from the right eye, even though the distant background stays roughly the same.

A number of things have been tried. One way is with color glasses - usually one red lens, and one blue lens (anaglyph stereo). The whole trick here is that the 3D image can be presented as a mixture of red and blue. Since these colors are complementary, the overlaid red and blue images blended together will be split apart again by the red and blue eyeglass lenses. (The red lens will see only the blue colored image, and vice versa). The problem with this approach is that you can only do "grayscale" images - the red and blue lenses obviously warp any attempts to do full color images. Here's an example of such an image. I created this with a raytracer I wrote ten years ago, back when I was really into graphics and real 3D in particular. It's a simple model of some screenshots from the product I was working on at the time (Sun's Workshop debugger) along with a 3D model of the signature green "Run" debugging arrow:

Another approach is to use 3D shutter glasses. Here you're using a special headset which very rapidly opens and closes the left and right eye lenses in succession. This is synchronized with a computer, which shows the left image followed by the right image. This allows full color 3D, since you're using time rather than color to do the image separation. I've never tried this technology so I don't know how well it works but I believe it's been used in games.

Another approach is the original, historical approach to viewing 3D images - "free" viewing. Here you simply show the two images, right next to each other. With a little training, it's easy to view this image and visually fuse the two together in your head (by changing your eye focus to be behind the screen) and suddenly see a 3D picture in the middle. Try it.

In the Polar Express IMAX version, however, they were using another technique which relies upon light polarization. The trick here is to use two movie projectors, projecting through perpendicular polarizing filters. Viewers then also view through glasses with perpendicular polarization lenses. The net result is that you get to view beautiful (full color, no time lapse) stereo images. I assume it was fairly easy for the creators of the Polar Express to create a 3D version - they already had the full 3D models; they "simply" had to render all the scenes over again - twice, one from each eye location. Hope they had good rendering hardware.

I had heard a lot about the polarization technique - but this was the first time I actually saw it. It looked fantastic - and of course the "screen resolution" in IMAX films is fabulous. But there is one remaining problem. I discovered that I tend to lean my head to one side or the other during a long (two hour) movie - and as soon as you do, you start seeing visual artifacts. Your head had better be completely aligned with the polarization axes! (And the images also were rendered assuming a horizontal pair of eyes).

All in all it was definitely the movie experience of the year - yes, there have been movies I enjoyed more, but the combination of cool technology and seeing a movie that the kids loved so much and really put them in the mood for Santa was ..... priceless.

(P.S. That's a good thing since the tickets were nearly twice what I'm used to - $15 for adults and $10 for kids!)


Hey Tor! FYI the IMAX up in SF at the Metreon uses the shutter-style 3-D lenses. They actually broadcast (using IR?) in the room which is picked up by the bulky lenses to alternate right to left. The effect is AMAZING. I watched a 3-D movie there about underwater stuff: fish, etc. It was hard to believe how good the effect was. - Joe

Posted by Joe Nuxoll on January 02, 2006 at 02:42 AM PST #

Well, not when I was there! The picture of my kids above was taken at the Metreon last week! The glasses were definitely not shutter glasses - they were light, flimsy and had just thin film lenses. Of course they probably use both techniques (depending on the film being shown.) I read on the Polar Express IMAX pages that they actually do both techniques in different theaters.

P.S. Joe - I'm working my way through the full EG archives today!

Posted by Tor Norbye on January 02, 2006 at 02:57 AM PST #

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Tor Norbye


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