3D graphics – the term is widely bandied about, but what we're talking about is a 3D object that's viewable only as a two-dimensional representation on a monitor's screen. Yes, there have been a couple of true 3D systems, but they've used specialized graphics cards and required the viewer to wear awkward glasses or sit inside an expensive bubble. But we're ready to go beyond that.
I've just been looking at a production prototype of a true 3D flat-panel LCD display from Dimension Technologies. I've showed it to other people at our offices, and the reaction is the same in almost every case: "Wow!"
One moment, I'm looking at a normal desktop flat-panel monitor, no different from dozens of others. Then I invoke the demo, which is a series of still images in stereoscopic 3D. Most of the images give the startling impression that you could reach in and grab something in the picture, whether it's a photograph, a 3D model or an illustration.
This display works by showing two slightly different images at once, just like an old stereopticon. But instead of presenting them side by side, it interleaves them in vertical stripes. A directional layer inside the thin-film transistor panel points each image to one side, so that it can be seen only with one eye.
OK, 3D is wonderful, but how good, how much and how restrictive is it?
Image quality is a bit lower than I expected. Since the screen shows two images, the final composite has only half the resolution and seems slightly fuzzy. This is more noticeable on photographic images with fine detail. Vector graphic images with relatively flat surfaces look much sharper than photos.
The viewing position is critical. The monitor is designed for use at about arm's length. To get your head in the correct side-to-side position, Dimension Technologies puts a small red diode on the front panel. If you can see the red, you need to move your head to one side or the other until the diode appears dark. If you stand up and step back, the image changes. You can still tell it's 3D, but many images don't work right.
And the cost? This 15.1-inch monitor, complete with Windows-based software, costs just $1,699 (around £1,200). That's about triple the current street price for a 15-in. LCD monitor, but it's still within reach of users who really need 3D. There's also an 18.1-inch version, with 1,280-x-960 pixel (SXGA) resolution, at $6,999 (around £4,650). For either, you need a 500MHz CPU, 128MB of main memory and a compatible graphics card. Digital Technologies recommends Elsa cards or others that use graphics chips from Nvidia. For my tests, I used I/OMagic's GeForce2 GXS card with 32MB of video memory. This specific card wasn't on the "approved" list, but it worked fine.
As always, if displays such as these take off, we can expect to see the price drop substantially. At the moment they seem only of any use to industrial designers and medical techs – but if they become widely used in the consumer sphere then anyone who works with 3D may need to move over to a 3D screen.