In the trailer for Tim Burton's May remake of "The Dark Shadows," Johnny Depp's character wakes up after a centuries-long sleep and sees a television. "Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!" he shouts at the figure on the screen before destroying the set in a rage against its "sorcery." It's funny, but not necessarily believable. After all, even Rip Van Winkle would be able to tell the difference between 3D life and 2D TV, wouldn't he?
A group of students at MIT's Media Lab may soon make matters rather more confusing. They're working on a new kind of TV called a "tensor display," the first 3D TV that produces an image as clear and bright as that of a traditional TV without requiring viewers to wear glasses. What's more, viewers will be able to see different parts of the image, depending on where they are in relation to the screen -- a first in home entertainment.
"As you move around the room, you don't just see the same perspective on the video," grad student Matt Hirsch, one of the researchers on the team, told The Huffington Post. "If there's a signpost in the video, it will block different parts of the screen, depending on whether you're looking from the left or the right side of the TV."
This quality, called "multiview 3D," simulates the act of looking at an object in a whole new way. If you were to watch an outdoors scene, for example, and looked up at the screen while lying on the floor, you might be able to see up to the sky, even if it's not visible when the screen is viewed straight-on. The fact that each of your eyes will see objects on the screen from slightly different angles will help create the illusion that you're looking at something truly three-dimensional.
Hirsch likens the experience to peering through "a window into another world."
You can learn about the technical details of the tensor display in the YouTube video embedded above, but the basic idea is that it uses four LCD screens, layered atop one another and flickering at different times, to trick the eye into thinking it's looking at a 3D image. Today's LCD screens don't refresh fast enough to make more than a rough prototype, but Hirsch estimated that a working model is just a few years away.
The bigger obstacle will be finding someone to shoot video suitable for the tensor display. Every single shot of a such movie will need to be captured from 25 to 30 angles -- quite an undertaking for directors, who have yet to fully embrace traditional 3D.
Hirsch said he thinks tensor displays can succeed anyway. "I can imagine the first place for this to take off would be video gaming, where you can just have the computer's virtual camera in the scene move around to all the positions where the player should have imagery, and it could just send that as an input to our algorithm, to run these displays," he said.
The next stop on the road to the "window into the other world" is the Siggraph Conference in Los Angeles, where Hirsch and the rest of the team will show their prototype to peers in display technology field. And the ultimate goal?
"As we get better and better at making these multiview 3D displays, we'll be able to really blur the lines between what's real and what's not real," Hirsch said. "Eventually, we hope it can become a vehicle for your wildest dreams."