When you go to the movies now, it's pretty much accepted that you'll be handed a pair of glasses along with your torn ticket stub. Studios love 3D movies, and many films—especially big blockbuster action and science fiction films—have scenes designed just for three-dimensional viewing. But the glasses themselves might not stick around movie theaters forever: Researchers are discovering new methods that could someday dispense with glasses entirely.
At this year’s SIGGRAPH conference in Anaheim, researchers unveiled work on something called Cinema 3D. The technology, which is still in very early stages, shows 3D movies to viewers in any seat in a theatre using a special set of mirrors and lenses. Although Cinema 3D has a long way to go in terms of being cost-effective and being something researchers can reproduce on a large scale, a prototype version of the system was met with extreme interest at the conference.
Researchers at MIT, Israel’s Weizmann Institute, and Germany’s Saarland University and Max Planck Institute all worked on the project. The prototype they discussed at SIGGRAPH requires 50 sets of mirrors and lenses, and is only the size of a pad of paper. Scaling it out to larger sizes remains a major challenge.
Piotr Didyk of Saarland University and the Planck Institute told Co.Create that if a larger version of the technology were to be developed for movie theaters, it would require the use of precision manufacturing techniques. However, he noted that "We are researchers who come from computer graphics. We have a background in optics so we know how to design optics, but we don’t work on fabricating those elements."
The way the system works depends on one crucial factor: People stay in a seat for the duration of a movie and have a limited range of movement while the movie is playing.
"This project started with the observation that every cinema has a specific layout," Didyk added. "People in a theatre can’t move wherever they want; they sit in certain spots with a fixed head position with a certain degree of movement. This led us to design an optical system which takes multiple images shown on screen, all with the same viewing direction."
In other words, if you stay in the same seat for a movie and don’t move your head much, the screen will show up in 3D for you.
The technology is similar to other techniques that have shown up in the augmented reality world. For instance, Magic Leap is generally believed to work with similar innovations in mirrors. These techniques are easily exploitable in the cinema and augmented reality, where users generally keep their heads in a fixed position. However, they aren’t easily used for television or any other situation where viewers are moving around the room—which is just one reason why we haven’t seen 3D television yet.
Even though it’s still strictly in its early stages, glasses-less 3D movies are of intense interest to the film industry. According to the MPAA, more than one out of every 10 movies viewed in 2015 was in 3D, and theater chains are deeply interested in any form of 3D viewing that’s both appealing to the customer and exceedingly cost-friendly. Who knows? In 20 years, you may be watching Batman V Superman 4 in 3D with no need for glasses at all.