The early adopter's guide to 3D

We did some experimenting to find the answers to some 3D mysteries.

We're already in the second generation of in-home 3D, but you're forgiven if you feel nervous about making the plunge just yet. Spending $2000 or so on a 3D TV set, a few pairs of glasses, and a 3D-capable camera or camcorder still seems like a risky proposition at this point, as some key questions remain.

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For instance, will 3D video shot with a Panasonic camcorder display correctly on a Samsung TV? If so, what will it take to play back your own 3D images and video on your set? And if you'd rather limit your viewing options to broadcast 3D content and 3D Blu-ray discs, will the content currently available keep you entertained for long?

In this guide, we'll help answer those questions. It's worth a read even if you're not interested specifically in a 3D setup: Soon, every new HDTV may support 3D viewing in one way or another, and more everyday cameras will offer 3D modes.

"In the next couple of years, 3D camcorder success will depend on the ability to easily watch your content on the new breed of TVs," says Christopher Chute, Research Manager at IDC Worldwide Digital Imaging Solutions Group. "Cameras built specifically for 3D shooting may have only a niche following, yet more cameras in the coming years will give you a choice of 3D modes and let you easily capture 3D still and video content. Another trend we'll see is more glasses-free 3D screens on cameras and camcorders, enabling easy local sharing."

Here's what you'll need to know about the 3D file formats, cameras, camcorders, and HDTVs available now and in the coming months.

Sections:

Capturing 3D Content: One Lens vs. Two Lenses

File Types and Playback Differences

3D Content Providers

State of the 3D Union

Capturing 3D Content: One Lens vs. Two Lenses

In a traditional setup, a camera needs two lenses spaced about as far apart as a pair of eyeballs to take a 3D image. The photo taken through each lens represents a visual "channel"--one right channel, one left channel--that sync up with your eyeballs to create the 3D illusion you see in the resulting image. After taking the two photos, the camera combines the two "channel" images into one image in various ways, depending on the playback technology. Slightly offsetting the two images or firing the left- and right-channel images in rapid succession gives the image or video simulated depth when viewed with special eyewear or on a specially coated display.

Few single-lens 3D cameras and convertible 3D lens options are available now, though they are still probably the best option for casual shooters today. Not everyone wants to invest in a twin-lens camera built primarily for 3D shooting; one-lens cameras are everyday models built for traditional 2D shooting, but they also let you experiment with 3D photography. Be aware, however, that single-lens cameras can take only 3D still images, not 3D video footage; you'll need a dual-lens device to make 3D movies.

Inside single-lens models, accelerometers and algorithms perform most of the magic. The cameras detect where each lens in a two-lens setup should be; then on-screen guides instruct the shooter to move the camera accordingly to frame a 3D shot. The camera performs the post-shot stitching and processing automatically, and the result is a single .MPO-format 3D image.

Single-lens 3D cameras: The major players in one-lens, casual 3D shooting are Olympus, Panasonic and Sony. All those companies now offer several single-lens point-and-shoot cameras that capture.MPO images in 3D. In general, the 3D effects aren't as stunning as you'll see with a traditional twin-lens setup, but the cameras provide convenient entry points into 3D.

Announced at CES, the Olympus SP-610UZ megazoom camera and the Olympus TG-610 and TG-310 rugged cameras have on-screen guides that help you create a simulated dual-lens image by following in-camera controls. You snap a first shot, and the camera guides you via accelerometer-driven on-screen controls to frame the second shot of the 3D image. The wide-angle 22X optical zoom lens of the SP-610UZ and the underwater-shooting capabilities of the TG-610 and TG-310 should offer some very creative uses for the cameras' 3D modes: topography-friendly mountain vistas and Jaws 3D-style oncoming fish, for example.

Last year, Sony was the first company to offer single-lens, 3D-capable cameras (the Alpha NEX-5, Cyber-shot WX5 , and Cyber-shot TX5), and it will add five new 3D-capable Cyber-shot cameras in 2011. The Cyber-shot HX7V, TX10, TX100V, WX9, and WX10 all offer a new 3D Still Image mode, which creates a 3D image after you simply take a picture as you normally would. The new cameras also have the same 3D Sweep Panorama mode as last year's models, which lets you pan the camera from side to side and create an ultra-wide-angle .MPO image. The cameras' Sweep Multi Angle mode lets you view a 3D effect during in-camera playback by tilting the camera from side to side. The Cyber-shot TX10 is also waterproof, so you can shoot underwater 3D photos with it.

Panasonic just announced three new Lumix cameras that pack a similar 3D-shooting mode. The 16X-optical-zoom Lumix ZS10, the ultraslim touchscreen-operated Lumix FX78, and the rugged Lumix TS3 have a side-to-side panning 3D mode similar to the one found in Sony's cameras. Of the three, the TS3 is also ruggedized and lets you take underwater 3D shots.

Conversion lenses for 2D cameras and camcorders: Panasonic's entries for 3D still and video capture use detachable twin-lens 3D converters, making them good options for anyone who wants to dabble in 3D.

The Lumix GH-FT012 (12.5mm, f/12) lens works with Panasonic's interchangeable-lens Micro Four-Thirds Lumix DMC-GH2, GF2, and G2 cameras. With the lens attached, each camera snaps two side-by-side 3-megapixel images, and then combines them in the camera to create a single .MPO-format image. The lens, sold separately from the cameras, costs $250.

Meanwhile, Panasonic has six new camcorders that support the VW-CLT1 3D Conversion Lens introduced with last year's groundbreaking HDC-SDT750 camcorder. The HDC-HS900, HDC-SD90, HDC-SD800, HDC-SD900, HDC-TM90, and HDC-TM900 are compact high-definition camcorders that shoot 960-by-1080 video with each lens when the separately sold 3D lens is attached. It uses "side by side" technology to display the video in 3D during playback, which stretches the 960-line-wide horizontal resolution of each visual channel across the full 1920-line resolution of a 1080p HDTV screen. This entails a downgrade in resolution when you play back video in 3D.

Theoretically, twin-lens setups can shoot both 3D stills and 3D video, but Panasonic's cameras and camcorders do one or the other (but not both) with their 3D conversion lenses: The G-series cameras take 3D still images with the conversion lens attached, and the camcorders shoot 3D video with their conversion lens attached.

Dual-lens 3D cameras and camcorders: Currently there are four major options for fixed-dual-lens, "3D-first" models. All of them capture traditional 2D images, too, but they're designed primarily as 3D cameras and camcorders.

The most advanced compact camera in the 3D realm is the Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W3 ($500), the company's second-generation 3D snapshooter. The W3 has two 3X optical zoom lenses and two 10-megapixel sensors, plus a lenticular display that lets you see 3D effects without having to wear special glasses. The W3 offers manual controls for each lens, as well as some advanced 3D shooting modes that separate it from single-lens 3D cameras; you can also use manual controls to tweak the 3D effect of its 3.5-inch display. It shoots 3D stills in .MPO format, and 720p 3D video in 3D-AVI format. Playback works well when the camera is connected to a 3D TV via HDMI, but no existing 3D TV natively supports the 3D-AVI format.

Announced at this year's CES, JVC's dual-lens 3D camcorder, the JVC GS-TD1 ($2000), has two ultra-bright f/1.2 lenses in front of two backside-illuminated CMOS sensors that capture 1920-by-1080-resolution full-HD footage out of each channel in AVCHD (.MTS) format; the camcorder also snaps .MPO-format 3D stills, using its two 3.3-megapixel CMOS sensors. You can view 3D footage as you capture it without glasses, thanks to an adjustable parallax-barrier 3.5-inch LCD screen, and the camcorder supports 3D playback at full resolution. According to JVC, video playback is officially supported only when you use the camcorder as a playback device, connected to a compatible 3D TV set via HDMI.

Sony is another major player in the 3D camcorder realm, with a high-end full-size camcorder and a 3D-capable pocket camcorder on tap for 2011. The Sony Handycam TD10 ($1500) captures left-channel and right-channel 1920-by-1080 MPEG-4 MVC video, displayed in full 1080p resolution during playback. Instead of using "side-by-side" 3D technology, the TD10 uses "frame-packing" 3D, which displays full-resolution video captured from each lens. It has a 3.5-inch glasses-free 3D display that uses parallax-barrier technology, and it handles 3D video playback by using the camcorder as a playback device, connected via HDMI to a 3D TV.

The pocketable Sony Bloggie 3D ($250) has two lenses and two CMOS sensors; 3D shooting requires tilting the camcorder to landscape orientation while recording. The Bloggie 3D shoots 1920-by-1080-resolution MPEG-4 video through each channel, as well as 2-megapixel 3D still images. Video playback uses the side-by-side 3D display method, so 3D video clips lose a bit of resolution. The pocket camcorder has a glasses-free 2.4-inch LCD display for viewing 3D footage on the device; playback on a 3D TV requires connecting the device to a set via HDMI.

File Types and Playback Differences

The only foolproof way to display your own 3D photos and videos on current 3D-capable sets is to connect your camera or camcorder to the set via HDMI and then use it as a playback device. In general, native file support in today's 3D TV sets is iffy, but .MPO still images are well on their way toward achieving mainstream native support. What's more, you should be able to resolve most current native-playback issues via future firmware updates for each set.

Overall, .MPO is establishing itself as the standard for 3D still images. CIPA (the Camera and Imaging Products Association) supports the file format, which is the 3D still-image file type that most mainstream 3D-capable cameras use. Also, Panasonic Viera 3D sets natively support .MPO. Using the Panasonic Viera TC-P42GT25, we had no trouble viewing .MPO images directly from the TV's SD Card slots and USB-in ports.

3D video files are much trickier to work with, because of divergent file types and codecs. JVC and Panasonic capture 3D video as AVCHD-format .MTS files, Sony will use a to-be-determined MPEG-4 MVC codec, and Fujifilm uses a 3D version of the .AVI file format. In our testing, no Panasonic or Samsung 3D TV set natively supported any of these file types, but connecting the capture devices to any 3D-capable set via HDMI should let you play back 3D videos on the big screen properly.

You should keep a few things in mind before you shoot the next family moment in 3D. First, whether your TV uses active-shutter glasses or passive polarized glasses, your 3D videos and photos should work: File types don't depend on the tech used to create the 3D image, so you don't have to worry about a 3D Blu-ray disc working on one kind of 3D TV but not on another.

At the moment, active-shutter glasses should produce a higher-quality image than polarized 3D glasses, but they also cost more, require batteries, and often have problems with "flickering" images that can tire your eyes. Polarized glasses are the kind you've used in movie theaters--they're cheaper and lighter because all of the signal processing happens in the TV. However, polarized 3D sets haven't reached the market yet (Vizio and LG both announced polarized 3D sets at CES 2011), and we haven't had a chance to compare them against active-shutter sets to see how the image quality and 3D depth stack up.

Waiting for glasses-free 3D on a big-screen TV? Don't hold your breath. We've seen some promising (and not-so-promising) demos of glasses-free 3D TVs, but none that can consistently produce a 3D image with the range of acceptable viewing angles we expect of our current TVs. Instead, you have to stand in one of two spots about 8 to 10 feet away to see the 3D image--so it's not something you'd want in your living room. Smaller devices--such as portable Blu-ray players, laptops, game consoles, and the 3D LCD viewfinders on cameras and camcorders--can pull off glasses-free 3D, but so far the effect is pretty subtle.

Playing 3D photos and videos that you shot yourself usually involves connecting your camera or camcorder to a 3D TV via HDMI 1.4, but we're hoping that more manufacturers will offer the on-board SD Card slot and .MPO file support that Panasonic's Viera line of 3D TVs provide. We've yet to see a TV that plays back 3D .MTS videos (or any other 3D video file format) natively, an advance that would make viewing your own 3D videos a lot easier.

Once you get.MPO images and .MTS 3D videos to play on your TV, you'll see subtle differences in the "3Dness" of the image, depending on the TV and camera that you use. We viewed sample .MPO images shot with different cameras on Panasonic's Viera TC-P42GT25 and Samsung's UN40C7000 using active-shutter glasses, and the differences were obvious.

For example, in our eyes-on tests, .MPO images shot with the Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W3 looked stunning when played back via a USB port on Panasonic's Viera TC-P42GT25: The images displayed "coming out of the TV" foreground effects, expansive background depth, and subtle, true-to-life layering between different points in each image. But 3D .MPO images shot with the Sony Cyber-shot WX5 looked much more "3D" when viewed on the Sony Bravia KDL-40HX800 3D TV than on the Viera TC-P42GT25. Still images in .MPO format shot with the JVC GS-TD1 had a nice 3D effect when played back natively on the Panasonic set, but the image looked very layered: Subjects at different focal lengths looked a bit flat, and more like cardboard cutouts than real, three-dimensional objects. What's more, the Samsung set didn't recognize .MPO and 3D .MTS files on a connected USB drive; we had to connect the capture devices to the set via HDMI to view the files.

Even when you connect a camera or camcorder to a 3D TV for playback over HDMI, differences in 3D quality are noticeable from set to set. After we connected the FinePix Real 3D W3 to a Panasonic TV, the same 3D video showed more depth and much less flickering than it did when played on the Samsung set. Differences in the sets' signal processing, in 3D glasses technology, and even in the amount of battery charge left in the active-shutter glasses can affect the 3D quality during playback.

3D Content Providers

The selection of 3D content available today is better than it was last summer--the last time we checked in--but not by much. 3D Blu-ray discs are still the easiest way to put your 3D TV to work--assuming that you have a 3D Blu-ray player or a Sony PlayStation 3. Unfortunately for consumers, we continue to see vendors lock down high-profile movies as key elements of exclusive bundle-only releases. The 3D Blu-ray version of Avatar, for example, is available only as part of a Panasonic 3D starter kit that includes two pairs of glasses for about $400.

Sports fans can check out ESPN 3D, which currently shows scheduled sports events in 3D (consult the ESPN 3D schedule) and aims to begin showing nonstop 3D video content on February 11. The channel is available on most large cable/satellite TV providers, including AT&T Uverse, Comcast, and DirecTV.

Elsewhere, the 3D TV offerings are underwhelming. Comcast's 3D Events channel, available in some areas, is reserved for broadcasting special 3D events, and DirecTV has a channel devoted to its paid 3D video-on-demand service. 3D TV owners hoping for more programming options may benefit from a joint venture between Sony, IMax, and the Discovery Channel called 3Net, which aims to launch in early 2011. Until it arrives, though, there's not much beyond ESPN 3D and whatever you can find on Blu-ray.

The State of the 3D Union

At this stage, making a major 3D hardware purchase looks safer for anyone who is interested primarily in shooting 3D still images and viewing them with minimal fuss on a 3D TV. The .MPO format is well on its way toward becoming the standard 3D still-image file type, and more and more 3D TVs will offer native support for .MPO files. If you want to buy a 3D-capable still camera right away, you can probably do so without incurring major buyer's remorse down the road, as long as the camera shoots .MPO-format 3D stills. The most impressive still-image output we've seen to date came from the Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W3.

Material from 3D Blu-ray discs or content providers' channels aside, video is much harder to play back if you don't directly connect the capture device to the TV. The presence of too many disparate file types and too little native video file support makes recommending one camcorder over another extremely dicey. If you're willing to connect your camera or camcorder to your 3D TV via HDMI each time you want to watch high-quality 3D video, it will work--but the process is cumbersome, and the "3Dness" of the images may vary.

Beyond shooting your own 3D photos and video, a handful of 3D Blu-ray discs are available for at-home viewing, and more broadcast 3D content is coming later this year. The launch of around-the-clock 3D content on ESPN 3D and of the 3Net channel should provide an interesting test of 3D's mainstream in-home appeal. If the content is good enough to support repeat, everyday 3D viewing, those big-name offerings may sway buyers to invest in a 3D set.

This story, "The early adopter's guide to 3D" was originally published by PCWorld.

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