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Been seeing double for a very long time

Posted: 07.08.10
Elsa’s wireless stereoglasses the 3D Revelator circa 1999. (Source: Stereo3d.com)

The idea of using a computer for stereovision representation of molecules dates back to Project MAC at MIT in 1966. And in the early 1980s the concept became known “molecular graphics” and the Molecular Graphics Society (MGS) in the UK formalized the notion and science of computer-based molecular modeling. Initially much of the technology concentrated either on high-performance 3D graphics, including interactive rotation or 3D rendering of atoms as spheres (sometimes with radiosity). The first stereovision machine I saw was an Evans & Sutherland (E&S) workstation in the early eighties. It had a vector (“stroke”) display. The stereo device or selection device was a spinning mechanical shutter that was manually synced with a potentiometer that looked like a beer can on the side of the display.

StereoGraphics, founded in 1980, introduced the first commercially successful LCD shutter glasses around 1985 and they were used for molecular modeling and for some of the large multi-screen visualization systems designed by E&S and SGI.

In 1995 StereoGraphics founder Lenny Lipton invited me to his lab in San Rafael, CA. He gave me a large pair of glasses with dangling wires and showed me an F-22 on a 19-inch Sony Trinitron—it was amazing. Other companies followed, including Kasan, Miro, Nuvision, and VRex. Meanwhile, NovoLogics had developed three S3D games for PCs. S3D gaming had arrived.

At $179 StereoGraphics’ SimulEyes system, which consisted of a controller (synchronizer) box and a set of tethered glasses was the market leader. The glasses weighed less than two ounces, and up to four glasses could be plugged into a single SimulEyes VR control box—add-on glasses were available for $99. The price bar was set 15 years ago.

In 1999 Nvidia got into the game by offering special backward compatible drivers for games, and partnered with Elsa, which offered the popular 3D Revelator—one of, if not the, first IR controller glasses—that was 11 years ago.

By 2001, with the popping of the Internet bubble and associated depressions, S3D was a forgotten novelty; most of the companies associated with S3D were gone by 2002. Nvidia went on to other things, and StereoGraphics stuck to its knitting and kept supplying the scientific market with great S3D glasses. S3D has remained, but as a specialized technology for niche markets. For instance, Lipton developed RF glasses for Caves and large visualization rooms.

Other schemes were developed for S3D including the circular-polarized glasses RealD introduced to the cinema market in 2004. And, in 2006 RealD acquired StereoGraphics, and briefly, Lenny Lipton.

StereoGraphics CrystalEyes circa 1986. (Source: Stereo3d.com)

But S3D for PCs has remained a novelty until Nvidia introduced its 3D Vision in 2009. Just Prior to Nvidia entering the market, IZ3D introduced a co-axial dual-screen monitor that used polarized glasses. It was rather dim and the stereo effect was not too impressive.

So back to the future, ten years later, proving once again Kathleen Maher’s Practicality Gap theorem, Nvidia enters the market with shutter glasses. And the proof of Maher’s theorem was the introduction of 120Hz screens—the industry had wait for that.

When CRTs were used for S3D the refresh rate could be gotten up to 90 Hz and sometimes to 100Hz, close enough almost for a flicker-free S3D presentation but when the industry moved to LCD monitors we were locked into 60Hz refresh, which would only yield an unacceptable 30Hz S3D display.

LCD panel builders didn’t have S3D in mind when they developed 120 and 240Hz displays. They were trying to eliminate the smear a 60Hz display displayed in fast action sports. Samsung and ViewSonic thought 120Hz might be a differentiator for them in the PC display market, and in 2009 they introduced the displays.

Producing an S3D image is twice the work of a 2D display. You need 2X the display memory, 2X the bandwidth, and 2X the computation. A good graphics AIB can (just) handle that for a single screen. The multi-screens systems I am so fond of are quite a bit more work. For now, two AIBs are needed.

The three-screen system we are testing (see Mt. Tiburon Testing Labs this issue) takes us back to the future of high-end visualization pioneered by E&S and SGI but it’s cheap in comparison. What we have in the lab right now is 5760 pixel wide stereo visualization system. Ten years ago a comparable system would cost over $100,000—ours can be had for $4,000 or less. Now, combine this $4,000 visualization system with a sub-$10k super computer. Now you’ve got a lab, a two-machine system as powerful as behemoths that used to sell for $1 million or more. It’s under your desk, and you don’t have to share it with anyone.

That, is freakin amazing! And I think will revolutionize the visualization industry.