The digital world is essentially flat. Computers, TVs, movie
screens, even cellphones, display images in two dimensions.
But several latter-day Columbuses are trying to chart a digital
world in three dimensions. And they've made enough progress that 3-
D imaging - once a laughable Hollywood experiment - is reaching new
levels of realism.
Not only is 3-D making a comeback in theaters, it's seen as a
legitimate tool to enhance the work of scientists, engineers, and
Some of the first applications of 21st-century 3-D may be in
security and military areas, where a 3-D image of a bag in a
security scanner, a cargo container on a dock, or a ground target
from a plane may help reveal what is otherwise hidden.
Best of all: Viewers won't have to wear those goofy red- and blue-
tinted glasses, experts suggest.
People see the real world in 3-D largelybecause our eyes are
separated just enough to view objects from slightly different
angles. That gives our vision depth of field, also called
stereoscopic or binocular vision.
In 1953, Hollywood tried to recreate the effect onscreen in
"House of Wax," using multiple cameras whose images were juxtaposed.
The horror film turned Vincent Price into a star, but the technique
never quite crossed into the mainstream. Lately, thanks to improved
technology, 3-D film is making a comeback.
Last Christmas, "Polar Express" became the first Hollywood movie
to be released in 3-D on IMAX, the jumbo movie screens that have
popped up around the United States and the world. It was the latest
of nearly three dozen 3-D films to be shown in IMAX theaters since
1985. In March, Hollywood mega-directors George Lucas ("Star Wars")
and James Cameron ("Titanic") endorsed 3-D feature films as the wave
of the future.
Instead of expensive and complex filming using multiple cameras,
new techniques now allow movies already shot with a single camera to
be converted into 3-D, opening up a whole new library of existing
material. After viewing a 3-D version of a clip from his original
"Star Wars" movie, Mr. Lucas declared, "it looks better than the
These theatrical applications - as well as the familiar 3-D
attractions at theme parks - still require an updated version of the
old 3-D glasses. But a number of companies, from giant Toshiba Corp.
in Japan to small start-ups around the world, are looking past that
technique to create "naked eye" or "autostereoscopic" 3-D images.
The technique is "kind of like putting the glasses on the
display" instead of the person, says Keith Fredericks, vice
president for commercialization at Opticality Corp., in New York.
Opticality sees an early application of its glasses-free 3-D system
in advertising signs that "pop out" at passersby to grab their
attention. This month the company is displaying a 180-inch-long
"video wall" at Japan's National Museum of Emerging Science in Tokyo
as part of a world exposition there. It's believed to be the largest
naked-eye 3-D display ever built.
To viewers, some images appear to recede several feet into the
sign while others pop out. As viewers move in relation to the sign,
they see different views, just as they would with a real object, an
effect known as "motion parallax." "That really increases the
realism," Mr. Fredericks says.
A 'fish tank' look
LightSpace Technologies in Norwalk, Conn., uses another 3-D
technique to create what it calls a DepthCube. Images are projected
from the rear of 20 screens layered one in front of the other. …