The unassuming building in Burbank, California that I’ve just entered holds one of the offices of Dolby Laboratories. The company is well-known for their audio technologies but my appointment with Guido Voltolina, General Manager, Dolby 3D was all about my eyes, not ears. I entered a small room, barely big enough to hold him and I; the wall to my right held electronic equipment consisting of a video and audio control deck and a laptop, with a seated engineer hulking over them both. Directly ahead of me was a 55” 4K resolution panel. That would be an impressive piece of glass if only for the resolution alone, but there’s more going on. As in being able to display a 3D image without one having to wear any kind of special glasses. Because Dolby 3D is the technology driving the panel, the 3D image is glasses-free.
Voltolina nodded to the engineer who cued up a demonstration tape. James Cameron appeared and began speaking about the benefits of 3D in general, and his attitudes as to how it should be displayed. What I took away was that 3D shouldn’t be an afterthought created through 2D to 3D conversion, but part of the shooting process from the get-go. Meanwhile scenes from Avatar appeared and I was watching those 3D effects that were seen by moviegoers, but unlike them nothing was covering my face. I even moved off center and to the sides and the 3D effects continued. The 4K panel’s display of color was almost painfully intense, with the high resolution making every detail lifelike. And because I wasn’t wearing glasses, the panel’s brightness levels remained a comfortable constant.
As the demonstration video played, I engaged Voltolina so as to get the background of Dolby 3D, which included a partnership between them and Philips to create the Dolby 3D technology.
Tell me how Philips and Dolby came to work together on glasses free 3D.
Philips has been working on glasses free 3D technology for many years and the research team at Philips developed and patented many innovative solutions for the display as well for the rendering of 3D content on glasses free display. Dolby already has imaging presence in the cinema with a high quality glasses based 3D solution and after studying the best solution for home, Dolby concluded that glasses free 3D is a fundamental requirement to drive widespread adoption and for consumers to be able to comfortable enjoy 3D in the home.
The two companies agreed that in order to provide the market and end users the best 3D glasses free experience, a joint project was the right solution. In 2011 the Dolby 3D joint project started combining both companies know-how, specifically patents, expertise and personnel. Dolby 3D focuses on the delivery method of content in order to provide all the information necessary for the glasses free 3D displays and stereoscopic displays to perform and visualize 3D content at their top ability.
How does Dolby 3D work?
Dolby 3D technology has two main components. One focuses on a format that allows all the necessary information to be brought to the display to perform at its best, using the current infrastructure. An example was shown at CES and IBC where the Dolby 3D format was showcased using the Vudu service as well Akamai, uploading Dolby 3D movies on their servers and streaming it live through an on demand application.
The second component resides in the display where the frames are generated using the information mentioned above and matching it to the specific characteristic of the display, either this is a glasses based 3D TV or a glasses free 3D TV. Dolby 3D always renders and visualizes the best 3D image possible within the specific optical characteristic of the display itself.
What does the content need in order to function as Dolby 3D?
The Dolby 3D format requires the content to already be in 3D, it is not a 2D to 3D conversion technology. What Dolby 3D allows is to bring more data to the 3D displays so that the 3D image is higher quality. For example the FCFR (frame compatible full resolution) module allow to bring full resolution left and right image to the current 3D TVs enabling a much higher resolution when in 3D mode compared to the current side by side format. More specifically for 3D glasses free display, Dolby 3D allows additional important data like depth map of the frame, to be transmitted to the display enabling a much higher quality when the video is visualized on the screen.
And the hardware…?
Either the TV or setup box needs to have Dolby 3D decoding technology in order to interpret and unfold all the additional information that Dolby 3D format enables. If the device uses a current decoder only the same information that can be decoded today will be recognized and extracted, with the same limitations in solution and quality of today’s 3D devices. The Dolby3D decoder will interpret all the additional information and make it available to the electronics that drive the visualization on the display, taking advantage of the higher resolution and all the metadata that can help perfect the 3D image on screen.
Is there a reason why a technology like Dolby 3D couldn’t be done before?
The success of Dolby 3D is possible only today because LCD panel manufacturers can deliver very high pixel density. Only when it was clear that the display industry was developing technologies to make 4k available at a very affordable price and in the smaller displays higher density than 220 pixel-per-inch; we decided to invest in developing the Dolby 3D technology. Ultra high resolution is a requirement in order to create a pleasant 3D glasses free experience. Dolby 3D format + FullHD 3D content and high pixel density are key ingredients for a pleasant 3D entertainment experience at home and on mobile devices.
Voltolina added that they are working with the Cameron Pace Group to integrate the Dolby 3D format in their workflow and test if any improvement can be done to maintain the creative intention all the way from the studios to home. “Since Cameron has already endorsed 3D as the best way to tell a story and bring new emotions to the audience, it is very important that his creativity can now take advantage of this new technology that can be artistically used to experience 3D entertainment at home in a more natural way, without requiring glasses,” he said.
So where will Dolby 3D appear — as a TV panel, on a smartphone or tablet or ? No one at Dolby is saying, although from what I gathered the appearance is well within the next few years. OK, I can wait.
Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and journalist specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture.