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Why 3D is making a comeback in 2022 (Part 3: 3D in the digital era)

Why 3D is making a comeback in 2022 (Part 3: digital 3D cameras and viewers)
Why 3D is making a comeback in 2022 (Part 3: digital 3D cameras and viewers)

In part 3 of this article I look into how 3D has made the leap into the digital era.  Editor’s note: See here for Part 1 (history of 3D cameras) and Part 2 (history of 3D viewers).

Even though the Fuji W1 was the first integrated digital 3D camera, 3D enthusiasts had entered the digital era several years before, creating their own digital 3D rigs by coupling off-the-shelf cameras.

Sony H5 3D rig

The Fuji W1 (introduced in 2009), however offered a very compact pocketable alternative to these somewhat bulky stereo rigs. But Fuji was by no means the only one to market them. A Chinese company by the name of 3DinLife also introduced its own version of a pocket 3D digital camera shortly after Fuji and this camera was widely distributed under different names. Most surprisingly, even the well-known German camera manufacturer Rollei marketed the 3DinLife camera under its own brand.

Rollei 3D camera

At the same time, several other tech companies such as Viewsonic, DXG and Aiptek also produced their own stereo cameras. The problem was that all those cameras were poorly designed and had serious flaws, such as poor synchronization and poor resolution. Fortunately, they were also very poorly distributed.

ViewSonic ViewFun 3D camera

One exception to the series of poor 3D cameras was the Panasonic Lumix 3D1. The 3D1 was a very compact stereo camera with a smaller stereo base designed specifically for shooting at close range. Build quality as well as IQ were excellent with this camera.

Lumix DMC-3D1 camera

During that same period, Sony, JVC and Panasonic also introduced a wide range of 3D camcorders.   In fact Sony even produced a wide range of 3D binoculars.

Sony TD20 3D camcorder

One may wonder how, with the myriad of stereo cameras and camcorders out there, they ended up all being discontinued.

The most likely answer has to do with the lack of compatible 3D display options available at the time.   Back then, most of those manufacturers expected that buyers of these cameras would be satisfied viewing their content on 3D TVs. But the truth is that users wanted viewing means that were compact and portable as well as offering a high-resolution image.

Even though the Fuji W1 and W3 as well as all the 3D phones produced at the time featured glasses-free 3D displays, they were all quite small and low resolution. There did not exist at the time phones or tablets that could display the high-resolution images these cameras were recording.

HTC EVO 3D

Fuji did actually manufacture no less than two larger glasses-free photo frames for its 3D cameras, but they never adequately marketed them. Neither were HD anyhow.

Fuji V1 3D display

It is no surprise then that this first wave of digital 3D was not a tremendous success.

But whereas it appeared at the time that 3D was being abandoned by most major manufacturers, smaller companies in China and the US continued to develop glasses-free 3D display technology. In fact, between 2012 and 2020, a large number of companies introduced HD phones and tablets with glasses-free displays. The first used LCD parallax barrier methods. Those were favoured in the days when displays were low resolution so the 3D barrier could be switched off while viewing 2D content. But as display resolution increased, it was found that using thin permanent film barriers or lenticular grids made 2D viewing acceptable. It was also much more economical to implement since there was no need to change anything other than add a thin film under the glass and include a compatible app to view 3D content. A company like Elephone produced no less than three glasses-free 3D HD phones between 2017 and 2018 using this technology.

Most of the 3D phones and tablets produced during this period remained mostly unknown because they were mainly available via Chinese online stores. But in 2019, ROKiT introduced this technology to America, Europe and India via two phones that offered not only glasses-free 3D viewing but 3D content as well. ROKiT is currently developing its next generation line of phones that should be released later this year.

ROKiT IO Pro 3D phone

Lenticular technology has continued to evolve and companies such as Sony and Acer have introduced very high-end 3D lenticular displays.

Sony Spatial Reality 3D display

A company by the name of JS3D that has been exclusively dedicated to developing glasses-free 3D technology for the past twelve years has also recently introduced a new line of very high-resolution lenticular displays called ProMa.

ProMa 28-inch glasses-free 3D display

But what of stereo viewers? Most of the history of 3D involves the use of viewers featuring a pair of lenses to view the 3D image.   How has this translated into the digital world?

Oddly enough, the first digital 3D viewer was introduced in 2011 by Hasbro. It was called the My3D and was designed for viewing 3D content using an iPhone 4 as its display. The idea was brilliant but again, it was poorly marketed. Most of the public did not quite know what to do with it although 3D enthusiasts were quick to write software to display their 3D content on this platform.

Hasbro My3D viewer

But the My3D had a serious shortcoming in that it was designed to specifically interface with early versions of the iphone. And again, it did not offer HD resolution.

It was a small enterprise by the name of Cyclopital 3D that designed a next generation version of this viewer a few years later when phones with HD displays became the norm. The new viewer called View-Vaster was designed with interchangeable backs that allowed several model phones to be used and it was outfitted with high quality glass achromatic lenses of 65mm focal length.   This 3D viewer was able to display high-resolution images when coupled with phones having 4K displays.

Cyclopital 3D View-Vaster

But there really was a need for an integrated digital 3D viewer. In 2018, a company by the name of Cinera came up with such a viewer. It featured two large 2.5K displays arranged in a Wheatstone configuration – that is, the displays were facing each other and their image was reflected by a set of internal mirrors. The concept was brilliant and resulted in true high-resolution 3D and a total absence of screen-door effect.

Cinera Prime 3D HD digital viewer

Its main shortcoming was its size. The Cinera Prime, although fairly lightweight, was somewhat bulky. But in recent years, high-resolution displays have been further miniaturized and soon, Cinera announced a more compact version of its digital 3D viewer – the Cinera Edge. They however chose to integrate this small viewer into a larger module featuring large headphones for the express purpose of movie watching.

What I feel is needed is a compact digital viewer corresponding to the front section of the Cinera Edge. For viewing of stills or short clips such a viewer could be handheld as were all analog 3D viewers over the past one hundred years. And for movie viewing, such a viewer could be inserted into a separate head mount. Will this be Cinera’s next iteration of their digital viewer ? One can only hope.

One thing is clear:   The massive increase in resolution available on small displays over the last ten years will finally offer the possibility of high resolution 3D displays that are efficient and portable – whether they take the form of digital 3D viewers or glasses-free 3D displays. And that is why 3D is making a comeback in 2022.

Therefore, get ready to discover several new fascinating 3D products in coming weeks and months that will be reviewed here as they are introduced.

About the author

Francois B

Francois B is a 3D photographer and researcher with several decades of experience. He has researched countless 3D patents and equipment over the years, many dating from the 19th and 20th century. He has also corresponded with several inventors behind those patents and designed his own 3D equipment. Since 2013, he has been beta-testing 3D products for various companies including CVision, Cinera, Mopic, EyeFly 3D, TriDef, etc. He currently acts as consultant for several enterprises developing 3D equipment.

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  • Francois,

    Thanks for this fast trip through 3D digital history … keep it coming.
    We’ve been waiting already way to long for new 3D digital equipment. Hopefully it’ll show up very soon; hopefully old players on 3D market (Sony, Panasonic, Fuji, Canon) and many new 3D equipment manufacturers (e.g. Insta360 please finally release your constantly teased 3D module for One R camera system) will give us lots of reasons to enjoy high quality digital stereoscopy.