How I Helped Create Hollywood Blockbusters While Making $Millions Selling a $300 iPhone App

($300 for this?!)

($300 for this?!)

Warren Buffett says “price is what you pay, value is what you get”

But would you pay $300 for an iPhone app?

Jessica Livingston and Paul Graham are famous in the tech world. They were the first people  to start a tech “incubator” where investors put money into a lot of different startups at once and advise them through the early years. Today their incubator is worth an estimated $500MM and has produced companies like Reddit, Airbnb, Survey Monkey, Heroku and Dropbox.

Paul also writes about startups and has a famous drawing he loves to shares with founders:

(small group of very urgent users)

(small group of very urgent users)

Finding small groups of users who urgently want or need a product to solve their problem is more important than making something that seems useful to a lot of people, but isn’t.

Microsoft started with a small group of customers urgently demanding their product (an Altair BASIC interpreter), Facebook started the same way, &c. Because once you have traction with those users, you may be able to scale, as Google did. His drawing points out that although it is tempting to think a site like a social network for pets sounds like a good idea, it is better to solve problems for a small group that throw “things” at large groups of people that won’t use them (Pet social networking).

(this sign is in 3D in the hills above LA)

(a 3D sign in the hills above LA)

2010 was the age of 3D, remember? No one could get enough. It was everywhere and our company went public that summer, at the height of the fervor.

I flew to New York for some business meetings and to attend an outdoor screening of “Monsters vs Aliens 3D” in the new Brooklyn Bridge Park. I did a deal so our technology would be used in the first outdoor 3D movie screening of its type. 1,000 people were expected, 5,000 showed up including the mayor who gave a little “I like 3D, this is awesome” speech.

(unfortunately he wasn't there)

(unfortunately he wasn’t there)

Then I went to Tribeca Film Center and did a deal with Robert De Niro’s team. Everyone at TFC became my friends, as did 1/2 the studio and post production world in New York. And the New York Technical Institute, Brooklyn Academy of Music and all the screening rooms, even the private ones of famous directors and producers.  And I got to know everyone at SoHo House and did a deal for their screening room, too, so I’d be at SoHo every time I went to NY seeing all the famous people do the things they do.

I was hustling deals with every studio or production company I could find, and got the same feedback: 3D is hard to make. We need it to be easier. Our screening rooms need to show good content.

But did you ever stop to ask why 3D came back so strongly? It’s a very hard medium to work in, to film in, and to produce/post produce.

Shooting live 3D (like “Gravity” or “Avatar” or “Hugo”) is more expensive and time consuming. Using two cameras simultaneously is aggravating.

(it was powerful and saved $$$)

(powerful, interactive & solved a huge problem)

Companies were raising huge amounts of money to provide a 3D production service where they’d send vans full of engineers to sets and “assist” shooting. But they’d wing it. Most of the work still happened in post production and these vanloads of engineers would charge $hundredKs.

The public didn’t know and didn’t care about the difficulties. All everyone knew was 3D is huge and “the future.” We checked our stock price in the cab to the airport – $18 – $20 – $21 – it went up and we counted our money (even though we were locked up for 6 months).

The windows were down and the sticky New York air hugged us.

It was summer.

It all felt right. If I closed my eyes I heard “Empire State of Mind” in the background, distracting me from the smokey piss smell in the cab. There were challenges but we were riding the high tide and I kept my eyes open for more opportunities.

And in the middle of it I got a call from a friend who said “hey so I’m building this app and I wanted to see what you thought of it.” Of course I said “I’d love to see it.” It was early but he modeled the complex calculations and instructions of filming movies in 3D on an iOS platform – as an app. It was amazing.

(simplified complex calculations

(simplified complexity)

It wasn’t super pretty and clean yet but it was beta and its potential was clear:

An iPhone app that makes filming in 3D easier by giving Directors of Photography and Cinematographers the calculations they needed to properly shoot. It reduced setup time and improved shot quality, saving huge $.

I’ve been on tv and movie sets since I was a teenager. My oldest brother has made films and tv shows in Hollywood for almost 30 years and I’ve hung out with him at 3 of his 10+ shows, getting to know the organizational structure and watching filming take place. I found out what each person did.

Cinematographers and Directors of Photography make the important technical decisions for directors and producers.

(interactive virtual set)

(interactive virtual set)

So when my friend Ken Shafer of Innoventive Software showed me his idea we immediately partnered and a few months later launched “The RealD PRO Stereo 3D Calculator for iPhone”…then the iPad version.

We had what Jessica and Paul would call a “small, urgent group of users.” Because we were solving enormous problems for them. This app literally helped make some of the modern 3D blockbusters, which is partially why 3D took off so heavily, and made Cinematographers’ jobs easier. They could shoot and adjust real time.

We priced the app at $300. One of the top 10 most expensive iPhone apps ever. At that price, we didn’t need 10 million downloads to make som money. But the price was significantly below the value it brought to the users.

We sold thousands of them within months.

All the filmmakers and cinematographers bought it. 3D enthusiasts bought it. Braggarts bought it to show off.

Most of the 3D movies you saw in 2010-2012 used the app on-set. It saved them tens-of-thousands of dollars, sometimes that much daily, so $300 was a bargain. We probably could have charged more.

After a year or so we dropped the price to $69. Today you can get it in the app store for $54.99. We launched a lower featured consumer version for $29 which now sells for $9.99.

The app made over $1MM in revenue within the first 18 months, and is still selling.

We created a tool that virtually eliminated vanloads of engineers and ushered in the production of 3D content everywhere.

We could have leveraged the app and created other similar filmmaking or entertainment products to grow our user base but didn’t. That’s another story I probably won’t ever write about (and since I did this on behalf of a company I was not receiving the windfall from the sales of the app).

It proves you can throw out what anyone tells you about how to do something and focus on the value, not the price.

Find a product-market fit with a solution to a problem, serve those customers well, then scale.

Even starting with a $300 3D app for your iPhone.

Download it in the iTunes store here.


How To Be A Movie Guru: 10 Secrets Of Movie Watching Moguls

(jack black is gulliver)

(jack black is gulliver)

I could have been friends with Jack Black. I was at the after party for the movie premiere of Gulliver’s Travels 3D, but I was too embarrassed to say hi even though he was the star of the movie and standing five feet away. We made eye contact but I think he was checking out my date. All I know is that we could have met and become friends but we didn’t because I was afraid and said nothing. Sorry Jack. If you’re reading this: I think you’re hilarious and love your movies. We can still be friends.

Earlier that day we were late to the premiere of the movie. My friend Daniel had to iron his tie or something, so my date and I waited in the car while I hoped the premiere had assigned seats.

It was at the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. A lot of big movie premieres are there. It’s a huge old theater that seats like 20,000 people. At least, it feels like 20,000 when you’re the only one searching for a seat to a general admission premiere and you’re late, but it’s probably only 1200 seats.

There’s nothing more embarrassing than walking into a movie premiere late while famous people stare at you. A lot of famous people were there, so I was embarrassed searching for a seat in front of them. Luckily the movie hadn’t started yet and the lights were still up, but all the good seats were gone. We got the worst seats in the house. The Worst.

(emily blunt is in gulliver's travels 3d. I'm sure she was there.)

(i’m sure emily blunt was watching us)

We’ve all had bad seats for a movie. It’s horrible. I think it should be illegal to sell tickets to bad seats. It’s like a two hour torture fest that ends with a headache and whiplash.

Most movie theaters are not designed for good viewing. With all the space in a movie theater auditorium, expensive technology, utilities, cleaning and maintenance, and all the other costs, theaters drive attendance to sell the most tickets and cover their overhead. By default, most seats are terrible.

If you walk into any screening room in any big studio in Hollywood it looks nothing like a commercial movie theater. The designers, producers, directors and various other production professionals know the secrets of good and bad theaters. They only go to specific theaters and they always know in a few seconds if a theater is good or not. But do you?

I’m going to teach you the ten secrets of the movie gurus so you can find the best theater in your area and always have a great movie experience.

When insiders go to movies they know the best auditoriums, and can assess a good auditorium in about 1 minute using these secrets.

When the lights are up…
1. get an awesome seat – Look at the seat layout in the auditorium. Are all the seats located within the width of the screen or are they tapered wider so some seats are beyond the edges of the screen?  Are they like a stadium or are they flat? You want a seat nearest the center, about 2 screen heights away. Light is most evenly viewed from the center of the screen, and with the proliferation of silver screens seating position is crucial (used in most auditoriums equipped with 3D; silver screens do not reflect light evenly).  Stadium seating is also best to avoid looking at the back of someone’s head, as long as you are not above/below the screen.

2. Now look at the screen – Does it look silver or white? Are there noticeable marks? Is it curved? ? How wide is it? Does it look more square or rectangular? A white screen is the best – white screens typically have lower “gain” (reflectivity) measuring around 1.0, meaning projected light is evenly reflected back at the audience. Silver screens (required for 3D like RealD, MasterImage or Volfoni) almost always have higher gain of 2.0 or more, which means light reflects less evenly. A curved screen is meant to direct light back at the center of the auditorium, but it also means that seats at the right and left sides of the auditorium have lower image quality (less light reflected at them) and cause distorted images.

3. Look at the projection booth and projector location (the room in the back of the auditorium where the projector sits) – What is the position relative to the screen? If you drew a line, would the line be level, projecting downward or projecting upward? Optimally, the projector will be positioned so it projects directly at the center of the screen. If the projector is positioned above or below the screen projecting at an angle you’ll see “keystoning” or image distortion that makes the image look like a trapezoid (i.e. the image will not evenly fill the projection screen).

4. Wall and ceiling color – What color are the walls and ceiling of the auditorium? Ideally they will be dark because white walls and ceilings can reflect light and distract you from the screen.

5. Auditorium shape – How wide and long is the auditorium relative to the screen size? Ideally, the screen will be almost as wide as the auditorium and the auditorium will be at least twice as long as the width of the screen. Long auditoriums are better; short projection can cause distortion, especially in 3D.


(the mpaa notice: watch the color)

When the lights go down…
1. Look at the MPAA notice – The MPAA notice is the green notice for previews and ratings. The great thing about this image is the even color so you can tell if the brightness varies across the screen. You can also look at the edges and corners of the screen to see if the image is keystoning (wider at the top or bottom).

2. Focus – Look at all four corners of the screen. The images in all four corners should be in-focus.

3. Masking – Masking is the black velvet draping around the border of the screen. There shouldn’t be any exposed screen surface once the movie is playing, and there also shouldn’t be a lot of the image over-projecting onto the masking. Any exposed screen (or too much over-projection) means either the projector isn’t properly aligned with the screen or the screen masking isn’t right.

4. Artifacts from the port glass or screen damage – The port glass is the window between the projector and auditorium that the light shines through. Hopefully the theater keeps the port glass clean so you don’t end up with dirt or dust skewing the image.

5. Brightness – the brightness of the image in a theater is measured in footlamberts. 14 footlamberts is the standard for 2D images in auditoriums and 4.5 footlamberts is the standard for 3D images. This is a really big difference. It’s hard to measure a footlambert without a light meter, but an easy way to estimate footlamberts is looking at the MPAA notice: the green should be really bright. If it looks dim, the projector bulb may be decaying or the projector may be set at a lower brightness. If you’re watching a 2D movie, look back at the projection booth. If the 3D filter is in front of the projector it will also reduce the brightness of the

Here are two acronyms you can use to help remember:

Lights up: WAPSS (wall/ceiling color, auditorium shape, projection booth, screen, seats)

Lights down: BAMMF (brightness, artifacts, masking, MPAA color, focus)

I’ve screened movies at almost all the major studios in Hollywood (and most of the smaller ones) as well as post production and visual effects facilities. It takes practice to become a movie guru, but once you do you’ll have a lot more fun at movie theaters and be able to know a good theater within a few minutes of walking in, just save yourself some embarrassment and don’t be late.

How to Avoid Crappy 3D: Technology Insights from an Industry Insider

(avatar is the highest grossing movie of all time)

(avatar is the highest grossing movie of all time)

I was in the 3D business for a six years. I’ve worked with all the major studios, consumer electronics companies, engineers, producers, directors, DPs, enthusiasts and even a few neurosurgeons.

I’ve gotten a lot of the same questions about 3D from all these groups because there’s a lot of confusion about 3D. The web doesn’t help.

Conflicting descriptions of formats, resolution, brightness, and display methods only make it more confusing, especially when there are multiple elements to each topic.

This post is my attempt at providing a basic introduction to 3D technology while clearing up some long-standing questions, and hopefully it’s helpful to you as a reference. You’re welcome to email me any time with questions. Enjoy.

Stereoscopic (3D) – An Overview

Stereoscopic visualization has been around since before humans, and is used by humans and animals alike. Our paired eyes, positioned parallel to each other, receive two sets of information – right eye and left eye information – which our brain converges into a single image that has perceived depth.

As humans are curious, we sought to figure out a way to recreate what we see and did so through drawings and paintings, eventually utilizing photographic methods. The results are the means by which our society now communicates vast amounts of information: visually, utilizing 2D imagery. Though, no matter how high the resolution, these2D images do not contain the data of a comparable 3D image, but it wasn’t until 1838 when Sir Charles Wheatstone discovered and studied the depth sense referred to as stereopsis. Since then, many stereo-presentation objects, from the parlor stereoscope to the timeless View-Master, have been invented and used for entertaining.  Now, several major organizations, such as NASA expend great effort to visualize in 3D, because of the enhanced ability to use that information for mission critical decisions.

The current trend toward stereoscopic is in some ways a step back in time to a fundamental technology. Images with depth contain more information than 2D images and that information can be used to clearly and adeptly communicate. It is shown that 3D imagery is more memorable and learning occurs much faster when stereoscopic tools are used in place of similar non-stereoscopic tools. Why else would we have evolved with stereoscopic sight if it were not to our advantage?


Stereoscopic Methods

It is fairly easy to create a 3D presentation device. Hundreds, if not thousands of methods exist. The idea is simple: we capture a right eye image and a left eye image and present each in a way that allows the right and left to see only respective images. This can be achieved using two separate lenses seeing separate images, as is done with a stereoscope or a View-Master, or using eyewear that block the R eye when the L eye is shown or block the L eye when the R eye is shown.

The methods for ‘filtering’ the proper R/L image into the proper eye are several, all requiring some type of eyewear, but a few are the most common: color separation (we all know the red and blue 3D images, also known as anaglyph), light polarization (similar to color separation but instead of changing the color of the R/L image and using colored lenses to ‘filter’ the images, the state of the light is changed and the eyewear lenses prevent the wrong  light from entering the wrong eye) and physical blocking (eyewear actually ‘black-out’ one or the other eye, physically preventing the image from being seen by the opposite eye).

There are eyewear-free methods such as lenticular, parallax barrier and others, but there are complications that prevent these methods from becoming broadly adopted. For the purposes of this paper, eyewear-free 3D will only be mentioned as a promising but still immature technology not readily available.

The most common method has been color separation (anaglyph), but viewing most red and blue 3D or color separation technologies (excluding color notching), can cause eye strain and headaches due to the color disparity between right and left eyes. Much more impressive are the polarized and physical blocking techniques since they allow full-color images to be seen easily and are currently enabling the majority of 3D displays and projectors available to the consumer and commercial markets. Since anaglyph is essentially limited in its useful application, it will be mentioned minimally.

Polarized technology is also referred to as ‘passive’ and physical blocking technology is referred to as ‘active’. These terms refer to the way the eyewear separate images for the left or right eye. Passive 3D glasses have polarized film as lenses, such as the lightweight eyewear you may receive when you attend a cinema from companies like RealD; the lenses do not physically activate. Active eyewear, also known as ‘shutter glasses’, have lenses that actually change between clear and opaque, physically blocking an image from entering the eye. In other words, active eyewear lenses are electronically powered whereas passive eyewear are not.

(active 3D glasses are going away)

(active 3D glasses are going away)

Active Eyewear – an overview

We can mimic the way active eyewear work by closing our L eye, then closing the R eye while opening the L eye, doing this in succession so you are blinking L,R,L,R, etc. Typical active eyewear use liquid crystal cells, like in a watch, that achieve an opaque (black) state when an electric charge is passed through the cell, similar to a number on an LCD watch face. The better the cell in the eyewear lens, the faster the lens can change from clear to black and the more black the lens will become preventing light reaching the eye, and the more accurate the color of the image when the lens is translucent. The extinction ratio is the degree to which the lens will prevent light from passing through and the contrast ratio is the ratio of the brightest color to the darkest color. Generally, a high extinction ratio and a high contrast ratio within a fast lens switching speed will create an excellent pair of active eyewear. Tinted lenses and poor switching speeds can negatively impact contrast and extinction.

Extinction, contrast, switching speed and lens tint are key factors impacting how effective shutterglasses operate. Generally, poor-performing shutterglasses have lenses that may not become opaque (low extinction), have low transmission of light when open (low contrast) or a low switching speed (slow). As battery power in active eyewear wears out, eyewear performance generally declines.

Shutterglasses will remain more expensive than passive glasses simply due to the electronics within the eyewear. Passive glasses have no electronics or lenses that switch electronically.

(a pair of passive RealD 3D glasses)

(a pair of passive RealD 3D glasses)

Passive Eyewear- an overview

Whereas active eyewear are electronic, passive eyewear are not, and can be made from inexpensive materials such as paper or plastic, with special polarized plastic lenses or lenses coated with polarized film. The lens of passive glasses work like a child’s toy that requires matching the shape of an object with a corresponding hole. The passive lens will only allow light of the same ‘shape’ to pass through the lens and reach the eye, filtering the unwanted light. Light from the opposite eye image is prevented from reaching the incorrect eye and therefore by orienting the light of the R/L eye images in a presentation device (display, projector, etc), the R/L eye images can be seen by the proper eye using polarizing lenses.

Obviously there will be sensitivity within passive lenses: lenses need to be held rigid and properly oriented toward the light source for the best filtering effect. The best passive eyewear will firmly hold the lens in place, flatly in front of the eye with a large viewing window and prevent lens distortion, which causes unwanted light penetration, unless proper technical methods are used to curve the lens surface while retaining polarization filtering capabilities. Passive lenses are measured by contrast and extinction capabilities, the best lens material having high contrast and extinction ratios. The best lens material is more expensive and requires a high degree of quality control for consistent performance. Low-quality lens material does not properly filter the light into the eye and can be a cause of ghosting/poor 3D effect.

Displaying 3D – The 3D Elements

The eyewear is only one piece in the chain of elements required for viewing 3D:

  1. Content – created in 3D (avoiding the topic of real-time 2D-3D conversion for now)
  2. Host Device- A device that hosts the content (Blu-ray® player, computer, cable/satellite, server, etc)
  3. Presentation Device – 3D presentation device, such as a display (TV, computer monitor, etc), projection onto a surface, or a scope
  4. Eyewear – Active or Passive eyewear
  5. Pair of eyes capable of seeing stereoscopic

The numerous elements above all rely on each other like chain links; any problem in any point of the element chain will impact the downstream element. Some examples:

A)     Eyewear problem –, eyewear unable to filter the image into the proper eye will prevent 3D or cause excessive ‘ghosting’, or bleed from right into left eye and vice versa

B)      Presentation problem –, if the presentation device does not work properly, poor stereo 3D will occur, for example if dual projectors are used and the projectors are not aligned properly, or have color or brightness disparity

C)      Content problem – poorly created content can cause physical discomfort such as eyestrain, headaches and nausea. There are five particular traits of stereo content that can cause physical discomfort. The five primary traits of stereo content that will cause physical discomfort include: negative parallax edge violations, R/L eye vertical disparity, R/L eye color disparity, divergence, excessive parallax.Stereo content itself does not cause discomfort unless a viewer has a preexisting condition causing daily visual discomfort.

Hopefully this better explains how important it is to maintain quality in each link of a 3D content presentation, from content to display. One rule is that 3D should never be uncomfortable. If it is, one of the links in the chain is faulty.

Active and Passive Presentation

Now let’s assume that we have content, a host device and eyewear all without any problems. The presentation device can be of any kind (projection or display), but the presentation device must match the eyewear type. Active eyewear will only work with an active presentation device and passive eyewear will only work with a passive presentation device, since it is the state of the light (polarized/non-polarized) or capability of the presentation device that will determine if passive or active eyewear must be used.

An active presentation device will present images in a sequential mode- L,R,L,R,L,R, etc whereby the shutterglasses will open and close the lens so the open lens coordinates with the eye image being shown by the presentation device. In theory this is simple, but in practice it is quite difficult. The active eyewear must match perfectly the ‘frame rate’ of the images being shown. Presentation devices best present 3D content at frame rates above ‘110hz’ or 110 frames per second (55 frames per eye). 120hz (60 frames per eye) is the standard frame rate whereby a frame is presented to the eye for such a short time that the frame switch is unperceivable and therefore avoids the common problem of ‘flicker’ or a jittery image. This requires active lenses to open and close 60 times in each eye in less than 1/60th of a second with a ‘sync signal’ from the presentation device telling the eyewear which lens to open or close at which time. This is done using a variety of sync signals including radio frequencies, infrared (IR) signals or a lesser known light pulse method (used by Texas Instruments). The eyewear receive the signal and respond accordingly, like a TV remote tells a TV to change a channel.

Passive eyewear do not require a ‘sync signal’, but they do require light waves to be oriented properly when each image is presented to the eye. Only the R image should be polarized to match the R eye polarized lens and vice versa. As light is emitted from a display device, the polarization is generally random (except in LCD & LCOS presentation devices but for simplicity sake, we will avoid this for now). A ‘polarization filter’ is placed in front of the light source so that the corresponding image can be polarized and voila, the passive eyewear filters the light and we see 3D. Easy enough if it weren’t for the challenge of how to polarize light.

Light polarization can occur two ways: 1) a static polarized film in front of a light source will permanently polarize the light from the source into a single polarized state (i.e. it sits there and as light passes through it arranges the light into a certain pattern), 2) switching polarizing element in front of a light source that can alternate between one polarizing state and an opposite polarizing state (i.e. electronic signals cause the switching element to polarize the light one direction, then alternate the element quickly to polarize the light the opposite direction).  A static polarized film is used in some of the LCD monitors and projectors available today and switching polarized elements are used in front of DLP® projectors in cinemas. A switching polarizer can be set to switch each time a frame is projected from a projector, so when a L frame is projected the polarization can match the L eyewear lens and vice versa when the R frame is projected. An active switch has the advantage of being coupled with a single projector, and therefore avoids the issues associated with dual-projector setups. Further, a solid-state switching element requires no mechanical movement and is therefore more reliable than mechanically switching polarizers, and has fewer components. A solid state polarizer looks like a tinted window in front of a projector lens while a mechanical switching polarizer will look like a wheel or some other form.

There are two primary forms of polarization: Circular and Linear. The names describe the structure of the polarized light: circular polarization structures light in a clockwise or counterclockwise circular (corkscrew) form while linear polarization structures light in a linear (straight line) structure. The advantage of circular polarization is that viewers have more freedom of head movement – they can tilt their heads to the side – and the eyewear will still filter the image. Linear polarization does not rotate, so viewers cannot tilt their heads beyond about seven degrees. While watching content, viewers must keep their heads straight to avoid linear polarization ghosting.

(a side-by-side 3D format)

(a side-by-side 3D format)

3D Formats

There are a variety of 3D ‘formats’, the ‘package’ in which 3D content is stored, transmitted, or presented. Another way to think of this is looking at a picture: the ‘format’ is the size and orientation of the picture. Since stereoscopic images consist of 2 pictures (R,L), both pictures must be considered when storing the information. There are several ways to store 3D pictures, each called a format. One 3D format can be converted to another format, depending on what the presentation or transmission hardware requires.

The most common format is frame-sequential. This format is like the pages in a book and how an image can be drawn on each of the corners so when the corner is flapped from end to beginning of the book, your hundreds of line drawings will appear to move. A 3D frame-sequential format just has a R eye movie and a L eye movie so when you are watching 3D content you are actually watching 2 movies simultaneously – one designed with a R eye view and one with a L eye view being presented like the corner pages in a book as R,L,R,L, etc. This format is referred to as ‘full resolution’ when the original image is being shown without pixel loss in its original state – you see 100% of the image pixels.

(an over-under 3D format)

(an over-under 3D format)

Other formats include side-by-side, over-under, horizontal-interlace and checkerboard whereby separate L/R frames are combined in a single frame, but each image is ‘squeezed’ or broken up and weaved together so the L and R information is contained in ½ the page. Each of these formats lose pixels and therefore are less than full resolution. Basic side-by-side is just two images horizontally squeezed (compressed) such that the L image is on the L side and R image is on the R side but only ½ the original horizontal size. Over-under is the same but instead of horizontal squeezing, the images are squeezed vertically so the R image is above the L image but each is only ½ the original vertical size. Horizontal-interlace and checkerboard formats are just as they sound: checkerboard is as if all the red squares of a checkerboard were from the L image and the black squares are the R image so ¼ the horizontal and ¼ the vertical resolution is missing. Horizontal-interlace is as if you were to cut thin strips of each image the long way, throw away ½ the strips and arrange the other ½ the strips for the L/R images as L eye strip on the top, followed by a R eye strip, all the way down a display so that every other line is one eye and the opposite line is the other eye, kind of like rows of in a corn field where the corn is the R eye image and the space between the corn is the L eye image.


Each format, when played back on a presentation device, can be converted to that presentation device’s required format and presented. If a side by side is converted to frame sequential for presentation, the L ½ is just expanded to take up the whole screen presenting the L eye image (and therefore the image looks normal) and vice versa when the R ½ is shown for the R eye.

Presentation Devices and Content Resolution

Each presentation device displays a 3D image in a different manner, using one kind of format. Many projectors utilize a frame-sequential format, as do most of the 3D LCD TV’s available today. The key to frame sequential format presentation is speed. A frame sequential device must be capable of playing content at a minimum of 120hz (120 frames per second) for a high quality 3D image. This converts to 60hz per eye. However, content going into a frame sequential device can be of any format. If the content source is not full resolution (i.e. side-by-side, over-under, checkerboard or horizontal-interlace), though the content will be shown in frame-sequential, it will still be lower resolution than if the source were full resolution frame-sequential. Further, if a content source is full resolution but it is presented in horizontal-interlace or checkerboard, it will be presented in a resolution lower than the content source.

Rear projection TV’s such as those from Mitsubishi use checkerboard to present 3D content while some models of displays from JVC, Hyundai, LG, Vizio, Toshiba and Sony use horizontal-interlace (though other models of LCD tv present content in frame-sequential such as Samsung Active 3D TVs).

All of the monitors available today have internal conversion capability where the format received is converted to the display format for the TV.

Content received from a 3D Blu-ray player will be frame-sequential, full-resolution (up to 1920x1080p) whereas content received through a set-top-box or cable feed is commonly side-by-side. The reason for the varying formats is that a full-resolution format requires 2 pictures (one per eye) and therefore has a larger amount of data to transmit between source and presentation device than a single-frame format such as side-by-side. Side-by-side is a more efficient way of broadcasting 3D and can use existing hardware infrastructure whereas full-resolution frame-sequential requires hardware with more bandwidth. The new 3D Blu-ray specification is a larger pipeline capable of carrying frame-sequential full-resolution images. Side-by-side and other formats can use existing bandwidth, but at lower resolution. It is possible to master a DVD or existing Blu-ray with SbS content and play it through legacy bandwidth (i.e. HDMI 1.3, analog or other). As long as the presentation device can convert the format to its display format, the host device is irrelevant and could be anything – DVD, Blu-ray, solid state drive, PC, MAC, set-top-box, etc. For the time being, we will not cover the topic of bitrate, etc.

Which format is best? Generally more resolution is preferred, but in the case of broadcast infrastructure, it would not be economically viable to upgrade all the hardware for higher bandwidth to carry frame-sequential 3D, so compressed formats are used. Side-by-side is the current standard adopted by most cable service providers since it has resolution advantages over other formats, though this may change in the future and over-under may be preferred for some types of content.

Viewing Content

Content, format, display device and viewing method are all separate but interrelated. Content can be any number of formats transferred into a presentation device that will convert the content into the display format. The presentation device has to be enabled for either active or passive viewing. Active and passive viewing are essentially independent (I will avoid the grey areas of this topic, since they do exist), and primarily require hardware on the presentation device to enable one or the other. If a presentation device is enabled for active eyewear it generally cannot be seen using passive glasses and vice versa. This is the reason that passive glasses from a cinema will only work on other presentation devices enabled with the same passive technology. So if you take your black ‘Ray-ban’ style glasses home from the theater and look at your tv, they will not work, even if the image is being presented as a 3D image, unless your tv is capable of presenting polarized images, i.e. the presentation device is capable of polarizing the light.

Even more complicated is that each pair of active eyewear and each presentation device has its own sync mechanism or signal and timing for the eyewear. Active eyewear used on one presentation device will generally not work on other devices unless eyewear can sync to the different sync signals. A frame-sequential projector will have a different sync timing and sync signal than an LCD TV or even rear-projection TV. Opponents to active eyewear argue that the lack of compatibility among the various presentation devices limits the ability to use the device. An example is that every person viewing the device would have to have eyewear compatible with the same signal. If a person has purchased a pair of glasses that do not match the presentation device signal, they will not be able to watch the content in 3D. Compounding this issue is that presentation device manufacturers have not agreed on a single standard sync method or signal and therefore will each offer their own eyewear. Active eyewear, being electronic, also are typically more expensive than passive eyewear causing concern about scalability – the ability of large audiences gathering to watch 3D content.

Proponents of passive technology argue that passive eliminates the electronic architecture requirement and required sync signal compatibility therefore enabling cross-compatibility among display devices and eyewear. Theoretically, if all presentation devices were enabled with passive technology in a polarization that matches the majority of movie theaters, one pair of eyewear could be used at all 3D-enabled locations and on passive 3D presentation devices. Additionally, the cost of a basic pair of passive eyewear is much lower than active and do not require a power source, which allow passive eyewear to be much more scalable and reliable than active eyewear.

There are a few reasons why passive systems dominate theaters and active presentation devices dominate consumer electronics. In a theater, one projector can be outfitted with passive polarization technology to enable hundreds of people in an audience to see 3D with inexpensive eyewear. Because each pair of eyewear does not require batteries or electronics, if one person in the audience is seeing 3D, the whole audience is receiving the same signal. Projectionists can quality control a show by simply watching the first few seconds and knowing 3D is working. The cost of each pair of passive eyewear reduces risk to theaters (loss, breakage, failure) and improves reliability for the audience – there is no chance that passive eyewear will ‘die’ in the middle of a screening since the projector is the only electronic piece of equipment. An audience of 200 people, each with active eyewear, are likely to have several failures (batteries, sync, etc) and several stolen/lost/broken for every presentation, and therefore also require ushers to handle audience eyewear failures and monitor outgoing customers to collect eyewear. Generally, passive eyewear can be 100% recycled – if they are broken or scratched, they can be melted and reformed and if they are not broken, they can be sanitized and redistributed. Active eyewear, if broken, cannot be 100% recycled and have dangerous battery waste throughout their life.

Passive polarization projection technology exists today and is the dominant format in cinemas around the world. Consumer electronics companies chose active eyewear as the dominant 3D introductory technology for TV’s because active 3D technology on televisions is much easier and less expensive than passive technology for TV’s and monitors. Active eyewear and matching TV’s allow the CE companies to continue developing reduced-cost passive solutions for TV’s and monitors. Though active eyewear are not universally compatible and can be expensive, several sets of active eyewear and an active 3D TV can still be less expensive for the consumer, but is not scalable.

Commercial 3D technology is more cost effective using passive technology because of the scalability, reliability, recyclability and low cost. When passive 3D presentation devices are broadly available in the consumer market, there may be a day when everyone owns a pair of passive 3D glasses and they may look just like your sunglasses and be used in both cinemas and in your home.


A review of stereoscopic methods, the basic elements of 3D, common formats, interpretation of eyewear technologies, eyewear relationship to presentation devices, and commercial trends is provided as general reference information for achieving a basic understanding of the new 3D ecosystem. It’s no surprise that technological barriers have prevented widespread adoption of stereoscopic media until now. Confusion around format vs. presentation technology and content quality add to the mystery and reluctance of 3D adoption. Antiquated technologies and physical pain associated with poor content and poor content presentation require time for obsolescence and domination of quality. Consistent standards-based 3D technologies, content guidelines and compatibility are driving 3D adoption and improving consumer attitudes. Broad application of 3D technology has only recently begun in the commercial markets  and seems like it is finally here to stay.