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Many Display Types, But Only One High-Resolution Choice

Blu-ray 3D On The PC: The Tom's Hardware Review

At this point, it looks like there might only be one way to view Blu-ray 3D movies in full 1080p resolution on a PC, and that is with the Nvidia's 3D Vision solution. It seems strange that a single company can have a virtual monopoly over the entire PC industry with a commercial-media format, but Nvidia might pull it off (at least in the short term). Part of this coup can certainly be attributed to forward-looking thinking and patents, but it's hard not to point a finger at AMD for playing catch-up a little too lackadaisically.

AMD has essentially ignored consumer-grade 3D solutions for years. This was probably the wise thing to do back when LCD shutter glasses were limited to slow CRT and LCD refresh rates. But it's more difficult to understand now, considering the clear direction Hollywood has been taking since 2008 when studios began attempting to make the third dimension popular again. Admittedly, we're not privy to the politics and going-ons behind the scenes, but it certainly looks like consumer-grade 3D displays and Blu-ray 3D haven't been taken as seriously by AMD's graphics card division--a division born of a company that championed desktop video acceleration in its infancy, and indeed led the charge to incorporate hardware acceleration back when 3dfx was still asking "video-what?" Radeons had TV-output and DVD acceleration years before these features were mainstream, so what happened here?

The only response we can squeeze out of AMD is that, "by the time Blu-ray 3D is on shelves, we will be ready." The company announced an open-3D initiative, and claims it is opening up its drivers directly to third parties like DDD and iZ3D, but other than a tech demo at the last CES, there has been nothing to see from the company.

We hope there's a rabbit waiting to be pulled out of a hat. Competition is the only healthy way to go, in our opinion. But from what we've seen, it's difficult to believe that AMD will be able to launch a Blu-ray 3D solution alongside Nvidia. It seems more likely that the graphics company is happy with its wait-and-see approach to 3D, and it may yet turn out that Blu-ray 3D will take a long time to hit mainstream price points and audiences. It's probably inevitable that AMD graphics cards will support the hardware decoding of Blu-ray 3D streams at some point, but we have no idea how long that might take. And we're not even sure if the newest generation of Radeon cards will be able to handle the HDMI 1.4 specification for full 1080p 3D output.

Why does Nvidia have such an enviable position? Because the company nailed the 120 Hz alternate-frame-sequential format for the PC a year before the TV industry did. It is the first company to sell the format to the mass market, and while its penetration is still limited, Nvidia’s 3D Vision hardware has more market penetration than any other PC 3D technology to date.

Let's examine why we consider the 120 Hz alternate-frame-sequencing format, accompanied by Nvidia's 3D Vision solution, to be the only real choice when it comes to viewing Blu-ray 3D on the PC in full high-definition.

Alternate Frame Sequencing at 120 Hz: Full Resolution Blu-ray 3D

A standard TV can provide 60 frames of video per second (60 Hz), but a 3D-ready TV can provide twice that, or 120 frames per second (120 Hz). The alternate frame-sequencing system works by alternately displaying a frame of video for each eye: first a frame of video for the left eye is shown, followed by a frame for the right eye, followed by a frame of video for the left eye again, and so on. This changes back and forth, 120 times each second.

If you watch a TV while it is delivering 3D content this way, all you'd see is a blur of what appears to be two perspectives overlapped on top of each other. The key to making this system work is LCD shutter glasses with Nvidia's 3D Vision technology. These glasses alternatively block each eye, 120 times each second (60 times a second for each eye), in order to allow only the intended frame of video to be seen by the targeted eye.

With a total 120 FPS, each eye sees every second frame, and thus receives 60 frames of video per second. That's the same rate that we're used to seeing on TV shows. At this speed, you shouldn't be able to perceive any strobing or flickering, but you'd probably notice that the video seems darker than you'd expect. This makes sense, since each eye is only receiving light half of the time.

The alternate-frame sequencing method of stereoscopic 3D is used not only in upcoming 3D-ready TV sets, but in some new 3D Vision-ready PC monitors, too.

What's the downside to alternate frame-sequencing technology? The cost of the equipment can become increasingly prohibitive. For example, Nvidia's 3D Vision kit, including a single pair of 3D glasses and an IR emitter (required to synchronize the glasses to the proper frame of video), is about $200. Each extra pair of glasses after that will typically cost $150 each. So, if you have a family of five and you want to watch a 3D film on your new Blu-ray 3D home-theater PC, it'll cost you about $800 just to procure the glasses. Invite a couple to join your family for movie night, and the cost goes up to $1,100. And that's not including the cash you already spent on your 3D Vision-ready display, HTPC, and playback software.

Are there any other downsides to active LCD glasses? Well, as mentioned previously, it limits the amount of light that reaches the eye, so your TV will seem darker than it does without wearing them. The glasses will also need to be powered. Modern LCD glasses are rechargeable, though, so this is a minor inconvenience.

However, the advantage of alternate-frame sequencing is significant, as it can display a distinct video stream to each eye in high-definition 1080p. That means when films like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Monsters vs Aliens, and Avatar become available to purchase as a Blu-ray 3D disc, it might not be possible to view them in full resolution with any other technology. It is possible that newer display types will arrive, but in the meantime, alternate-frame sequencing is poised to become the de facto standard for 3D stereoscopic displays in the home.

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