MIT made a movie screen that brings 3D to all seats – without the glasses

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Seeing 3D movies in theaters isn’t my preferred choice for a bunch of reasons, but the glasses definitely rank among its most annoying features. The cheap plastic things always have to ride atop my existing, actual vision glasses, for one, and they also always seem to be scratched or otherwise marked up. Which is why news that MIT has developed a glasses-less 3D display tech suitable for use in movie theater settings – even if it’s only a prototype – is so welcome.

You’ve probably experienced glasses-less 3D in some form if you’re reading TechCrunch – one of the more accessible ways to try it out is via the Nintendo 3DS. But even the 3DS’ latest generation handheld, which offers much-improved 3D, is designed for use by a single user, essentially looking at the display head-on at a relatively specific angle. It’s not something that would work in a theater with hundreds of seats, each of which necessarily has a different viewing angle.

Cinema 3D - how it works differently

Courtesy: MIT CSAIL and Weiszmann Institute

The MIT Computers Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) set out to create a display that lets people see the 3D effect in a movie theater, from any seat in the house – no glasses required. Teaming up with Israel’s Weiszmann Institute of Science, CSAIL managed to put together a prototype called ‘Cinema 3D’ that uses a complex arrangement of lenses and mirrors to create a set number of parallax barriers (think of Venetian blinds that show a slightly different set of pixels to each of the viewer’s eyes to simulate depth) that can address every viewing angle in the theater based on seat locations.

Researchers figured out you can do this in movie theaters because, unlike at home, you pretty much know where audience members are going to be: the seats are in fixed locations, and people tend not to move around, change seats or otherwise vary their angle of viewing too much during the screening of a movie.

Other attempts at large-scale glasses-less 3D viewing carry costs in terms of image resolution, because they have to cover all the angles from the projector itself, which splits the total number of pixels displayed to any one person by a steep margin. Another benefit to the Cinema 3D approach by CSAIL and the Weiszmann institute is that it preserves resolution, providing a crisp image to every viewer.

So far, the prototype isn’t nearly ready for market – it’s about the size of a letter-sized notepad, and it needs 50 sets of mirrors and lenses. But it proves the practicality of the design, and researchers are hopeful that they can scale up to a commercially viable product in time. Now that would offer a real shot in the arm to 3D content.