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Fourth wall falls to 3D

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Nintendo 3DS was for a while lone evidence that “natural” 3D could also be a quality experience. Now, at an expo in Israel, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK finds 3D’s promised land.
“Breaking the fourth wall” refers to fictional characters in a TV show or on stage becoming “aware” of their fictional status and interacting with the audience, thus breaking through the invisible “wall” formed by the TV screen or the front of the stage.

Done well, it can be startling and effective. Done badly, it is irritating or ridiculous.
Much the same applies to 3D entertainment in the home. Until recently, the only satisfactory 3D experience was to be had in specially equipped cinemas charging especially high prices.

Then, last year, 3D TV went mainstream. Sets began appearing in stores across the world. But to experience the action emerging from the screen, past the fourth wall, you needed to introduce yet another obstacle: 3D glasses specifically designed for the set you were using. That, in effect, added a fifth wall. Attempts to produce 3D that didn’t need glasses were both irritating and ridiculous.

Until this year.

The first device to show what can be achieved by applying a little ingenuity is not a TV set, but a handheld gaming device: the Nintendo 3DS. When it arrived in March, it came as a shock – because it was so surprisingly good.  Aside from a high-quality 3D experience across most games, it also uses a built-in dual camera system to capture faces or pictures in 3D, and include them in some of the games.

To be sure, it’s a novelty that wears off, but it is also a proof of concept that points a massive direction sign at the future of 3D.

The 3DS, like most other attempts at “natural” 3D, uses “auto stereoscopic” display to convince the brain it perceives depth in an image. This, after a lengthy session, can result in dizziness or nausea. The cure is to stop for a while, but the device also offers a 3D depth slider that sets the strength of the 3D experience, and allows you to turn 3D off altogether. The image retreats behind the fourth wall, i.e. it goes flat, but the games can still be played.

The 3DS was all the more surprising in that it hit the shelves mere weeks after LG Electronics announced the first cellular phone offering natural 3D, The LG Optimus 3D – but only in prototype. This suggested that the creases in the concept still needed to be ironed out. With only one viable natural 3D device out there for consumers, the fourth wall still seemed firmly in place.

This week, for the first time, I saw it come crashing down.

At the HT 2011 Show, a consumer electronics expo in Tel Aviv, a young Israeli company called 3DTVision unveiled a veritable ecosystem of 3D products using auto stereoscopic display.

Most startling of all was what looked like a normal MacBook Pro laptop computer, displaying vivid 3D content. Had Apple suddenly ventured into 3D without telling anyone?

“Not yet,” says 3DTVision founder and CEO David Chayon. “We changed the screen panel. We added the optics ourselves to make the LCD screen stereoscopic. That turns it into a switchable display laptop.”

His company’s software enables the laptop to identify 3D content automatically, and switch to stereoscopic display. When normal content, like a document or spreadsheet, is called up, it reverts to 2D.

They’ve done the same for a variety of computer and TV monitors – and produced their own 3D content to show off the technology.

“We’re working on switchable displays for any size,” says Chayon. “The future is watching 2D or 3D as needed, on any screen.”

In that future, the fourth wall is strictly optional.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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