Nintendo's announcement of the Nintendo 3DS brings with it the usual slew of technology refreshes -- faster processor, higher resolution display, etc -- as well as a capability new to handheld gaming: 3D. However, this 3D technology is a bit different from the one moviegoers are used to, in that it doesn't require glasses. What could this mean for the future of 3D video games and movies?

Sq3d-angle-refractionBefore we go any further -- how does the 3DS achieve a 3D effect without requiring cumbersome glasses? By using a lenticular lens, which projects slightly different images to your left and right eyes (isn't it clear in the illustration at left?). This works for the handheld gaming device because you can hold the device directly in front of you and easily adjust the horizontal angle until the effect renders correctly (it should be a bit more forgiving when it comes to vertical viewing angles). But why haven't we seen TVs that can enable 3D without glasses, or for that matter, 3D theaters that don't require everyone to wear dorky shades? It's the viewing angle (and the cost). A small display like the one on the 3DS can effectively target a single set of eyes. But a huge display, like a theater's projector screen, can't target hundreds of pairs of eyes distributed all around the theater. In fact, 3D TVs should have an advantage over huge theater screens like IMAX, once 3D TVs are able to apply the 3DS's technology to home displays. However, that's a long way off -- even with the need for 3D glasses, 3D TV technology has a long way to go. And even when they increase screen brightness and optimize the technology, it's still hard to escape the feeling that no one wants to wear 3D glasses -- especially in the comfort of their own home. To that end, 3D TVs that don't require glasses are in development.

However, the issue of glass-less 3D tech is further complicated once you add multiple viewers; a lenticular lens can project different images for your left and right eyes, but what happens if you have three friends over? That's six eyes distributed across a couch, all at slightly different viewing angles. Furthermore, what happens if these friends are gamers, and they're moving? Microsoft's Kinect (née Project Natal), due in November, is one such gaming system where the players will not be sitting still:

Indications are Kinect's camera-based motion tracking system is superior to Sony's own motion-control entry, the Playstation Move (essentially a Nintendo Wii rip-off). Gamers -- and not just Wii players -- will finally escape the sofa. However, the Wii, the Move, and Kinect are all tied to 2D displays. What happens if you pair a motion-tracking control scheme to a lenticular 3D TV that confines audience members to a narrow viewing axis?

Now it's getting complicated. Before we add a 3D TV into the mix, then, let's look at 2D displays and motion tracking -- even on a 2D display, motion tracking can enable realistic 3D effects. Take a look at this star-making demonstration by a Johnny Lee, who added a startling 3D effect to a 2D display simply by adapting his Wii controller:

That was two years ago. Not surprisingly, Lee's website now lists him as a Microsoft Xbox researcher.

Watching the video above, I wonder what a motion tracking control scheme like the Kinect will look like when paired with a TV that's actually 3D? Once you give the viewer participant control over a display's perspective via their own movements, 2D displays no longer seem flat. Indeed, in the words of director Christopher Nolan, "95% of our depth cues come from occlusion, resolution, color and so forth, so the idea of calling a 2-D movie a '2-D movie' is a little misleading." These natural depth cues will seem even more real with a motion-tracking control scheme. But a motion-tracking control scheme paired with a 3D display? That has gotta be the future of 3D. When kids can do a barrel rolls in front of 3D TVs that react to their movements, I imagine non-interactive films will feel comparitively passé -- 3D or not. As it is today, Rachel Channof of the Sundance Screenwriters Labs said of her 11 year-old son, "he’s been to Sundance 11 times and he likes the movies but he has a hard time grasping why he can’t control the story."

If that's already the case, what will happen when he can control a 3D display by ducking and dodging -- without the need to wear 3D glasses? Is this even possible? We'd be talking about motion-tracking cameras like the Kinect's, which not only track movement, but actually aim a display's separate eye projections at a moving target. That's crazy, right?

Microsoft's already working on it. Here's a prototype of one such motion tracking 3D display:

But what happens if a 3D game has multiple players? The TV would have to allow multiple sets of eyes to view different images from different angles simultaneously. That's crazy. But they're working on that too. Here's a prototype of multiple audience members being tracked by such a 3D display.

I don't know how all of this works, but I do know 3D tech is going to get really nuts. The TV sets they're trying to sell you today are a joke: no one wants to wear 3D glasses in their home. Even though the Nintendo 3DS is a little handheld gaming device, its display technology -- along with the demonstrations above -- make it clear that the current generation of 3D TVs are just a stopgap for when glasses-free 3D TVs hit the market in a few years.

Which 3D technology will be the most effective, when it will arrive, and how it will integrate with the next generation of gaming consoles is anyone's guess. It's enough to make your head spin -- sans specs.

[Lenticular lens illustration by Bernard_SOULIER (CC-A-SA)]