MIT Scientists Created a New Screen for a Glasses-Free 3D Movie Experience

July 26, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Concept art of Cinema 3D, a glasses-free 3D movie experience
Photo credit: Christine Daniloff/MIT

A glasses-like effect without the awkward headgear.

Many movie-goers may relate to the feeling of wanting a 3D cinematic experience sans the dorky glasses. Fortunately, a team of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have created a prototype screen, with a special array of lenses and mirrors, that could enable viewers to have a glasses-free 3D movie experience from any seat in the theater.

In the published paper, they’ve dubbed their creation “Cinema 3D.”

"Existing approaches to glasses-free 3-D require screens whose resolution requirements are so enormous that they are completely impractical," MIT professor Wojciech Matusik, one of the study co-authors, said in a press release. "This is the first technical approach that allows for glasses-free 3D on a large scale."

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Glasses-free 3D does already exist, like in Nintendo’s 3DS, but the current methods can’t be easily scaled up to cinema-sized screens. The traditional methods use a series of slits in front of the screen, called a parallax barrier, that show each of your eyes a different set of pixels. This effect creates a simulated sense of depth.

However, parallax barriers aren’t practical for theaters, where viewers are seated at different angles and distances, because the barriers have to be at a consistent distance from the viewer.

Cinema 3D fixes this problem by encoding multiple parallax barriers in one display, so each viewer can see a parallax barrier tailored to his or her unique position. The series of mirrors and lenses within Cinema 3D’s special optics system then replicates the range of views across the theater.

"With a 3-D TV, you have to account for people moving around to watch from different angles, which means that you have to divide up a limited number of pixels to be projected so that the viewer sees the image from wherever they are," Gordon Wetzstein, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University who was not involved in the research, said in the press release.

"The authors [of Cinema 3D] cleverly exploited the fact that theaters have a unique set-up in which every person sits in a more or less fixed position the whole time."

Although the idea is innovative, there’s still a long way to go before the technology might make it to a theater near you. The team’s prototype screen requires 50 sets of mirrors and lenses, and it’s only about the size of a pad of paper, but Matusik says the team plans to further refine the optics to improve the image resolution and build a larger version of the display.

"It remains to be seen whether the approach is financially feasible enough to scale up to a full-blown theater," says Matusik. "But we are optimistic that this is an important next step in developing glasses-free 3-D for large spaces like movie theaters and auditoriums."

You can check out the team’s video below.


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