SeeCubic's Ultra-D system provides glasses-free 3D TV that really works
You might think 3D TV had died a painful death, and I'd have agreed… until I saw Ultra-D. It's glasses-free 3D TV that works with any almost content, from old 480i/p broadcast TV to Blu-ray, including iOS and console games.
Ultra-D, SeeCubic's glasses-free television display system, is the best 3D TV I've seen so far. Unlike most rival systems, the image is as bright as you'd like, and you get the 3D effect from any normal viewing distance (up to 5m) and from any angle of view (up to 140 degrees).
Also, there's already an infinite supply of content. Ultra-D can convert any standard 2D broadcast TV stream -- analog or digital -- into 3D by reprocessing it on the fly. However, it can also handle Ultra-D broadcasts, which include depth information, and other 3D signals, eg from Blu-ray movies or 3D games such as Call of Duty.
Initially, I walked past the system when it was shown by Armour Home at David Fanning's Digital Winter press event in London last week. It was showing one of those exaggerated 3D demos that always look phony. Later, I found you could adjust the 3D effect anywhere from 0 to 200, and either use the screen as an ordinary HDTV set, or choose a more subtle 3D setting for much more believable results.
The proprietary technology, developed by Eindhoven-based SeeCubic BV (yes, next door to Philips) is still secret. Apparently it works much more like a holographic display than a traditional lenticular 3D screen. It creates a light field based on both stereoscopy (different views from two eyes) and motion parallax (foreground and background objects). This involves a lot of calculation and some guesswork -- which parts of the image should be in front of other parts? You'll have to examine more than one image. That means I'll have to suspend final judgement until I can try it with my own choice of content, rather than prepackaged clips.
The system has three parts: a new TV format, processing electronics/software, and a special screen.
Incoming TV signals are reprocessed by a set-top box or smart TV into Ultra-D format, and then displayed on an LCD/LED/OLED screen that has a four-layer optical stack bonded to the front. At the demo, Armour Home was using a PC tower to do the processing. However, Vancouver-based Intrinsyc Software International is developing a board based on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (APQ 8074) processor and Toshiba HDMI conversion chipsets, among other things. This could be shipped as a set-top box or integrated into a smart TV set. That's up to the TV supplier.
The demo system was a 50 Ultra-D2160P-SC, ie a 50-inch progressive screen with 2160 pixels vertically and 3840 pixels horizontally. This would commonly be called QFHD, Quad HD, or 4K. However, you only get the full pixel definition with a 2D picture. When doing glasses-free 3D, many of the 8 million pixels are being used for the Z (depth) dimension. The X-Y image quality is somewhere between 1080p (Full HD) and 4K, but to me it looked better than 1080p upscaled to 4D. (It would help to be able to see two screens side by side.)
Mathu Raja, CEO of Stream TV Networks, says the system works with Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PS3 games consoles and Apple iOS devices, so it will show Angry Birds or whatever in 3D. SeeCubic's CEO Walther Roelen says that the company is also developing a 31.5-inch monitor for the gaming market.
Ultra-D has been shown at various exhibitions including CES 2013 by Philadelphia-based Stream TV Networks, which owns both SeeCubic BV and the Ultra-D trademark. Armour Home is a UK distributor, and has been showing the system to UK retailers. At some point in the future, glasses-free Ultra-D TV sets should reach electronics stores at competitive prices -- currently around £5,000 for a 50-inch 4K set -- but don't ask about brand names. China's Hisense was the first to sign up so the first shipments will go to Chinese consumers.
The longer-term aim is to make Ultra-D an industry standard and have TV sets and set-top boxes sold by a wide range of manufacturers. SeeCubic says the Ultra-D format "is display-agnostic, which decouples the content from display characteristics and hardware generation", and "requires very limited additional bandwidth compared to regular 2D signals".
Networks could broadcast TV programmes in Ultra-D format, with 2D sets simply discarding the 3D information.