The Science Behind Making Magic

by Stephen P. Atwood

The concept of moving and still 3-D images is hardly new. The first demonstration, using red and green lenses, was in 1856 and is credited to J. C. d'Almeida, who reportedly used two stereoscopic images projected in rapid succession with lantern slides colored red and green. The audience viewed the screen through spectacles fitted with red and green lenses.1 (This is similar to the more recent anaglyph systems that use red and cyan filters in the glasses.) This demonstration must have really ignited the imaginations of the audience of that day, appearing to be magical from their point of view.

It was more than 100 years later that I experienced a similar sense of wonder when I viewed my first 3-D slide show with a stereoscopic viewer called a "View-Master." Fisher-Price still sells these viewers, along with slide shows arranged in circular cardboard cards. If you had one as a kid like I did, you had the fun of visiting numerous exotic places and seeing all kinds of incredible sights in stereoscopic 3-D. I did not understand, at that age, the amount of technical complexity that was needed to produce those slides and make them appear so lifelike while not breaking the seemingly endless rules about consistency with the borders, keeping depth behind the image plane, aligning depth cues properly, etc.

It was a few years later, during the 80s, that I first started seeing specially produced 3-D movies at the Disney theme parks. I remember thinking that everyone would have a 3-D TV at home someday. I do not remember much about the technical aspects of those experiences, except that the images ignited my imagination and certainly fueled my interest in displays.

As I grew older and learned about the physics and electronics that make displays come to life, I think the magic part faded away and for a while it became difficult for me take a step back and experience with wonder what was being displayed.

What looks at first like fantasy and magic can later be revealed in science if we are able to imagine a plausible explanation and then invest enough intellectual energy into proving it. When 3-D imagery appeared in the 1940s, or back in the 1800s, I think "magic" would have been the primary explanation for most people. With our more modern context, we might also see a hologram as magical, but at the same time would accept that it has an earthly and rational explanation – and even figure it out, with a little imagination. Not long ago, we published a couple of articles in ID that discussed how viable real-time holograms could be produced (see July 2008). If something like that became commercially viable 5–10 years from now, would any of us really consider it magic?

Conversely, if we let our scientific imagination run loose for a few minutes, many things become possible. The Wright brothers imagined that moving air would lift a wing. Before their models and experiments, there was no practical way to see that or test it. They had to imagine it and then construct a device to test their hypothesis. It's the essence of true invention. It takes people to do this, not machines, and it comes from looking at things from a different perspective – even a fantastic one – to first imagine something might be possible and then to try and make it so.

I am a big fan of the Star Trek series, as I suspect many of you are as well. Along with the show's whimsical devices and imaginative application of mostly fictional science is a strong sense of identity with being explorers who rely on our humanity rather than technology alone. Imagination is a critical element of humanity that separates us from the most advanced technology we can envision. Even the IBM scientists that developed Watson still are not much closer to actually defining an algorithm for human imagination.

So, now let's pretend the context of Star Trek is actually a credible look into our own future. Then let's imagine how some of the show's so-called technologies can, or already have, become real. Communicators are an obvious example. Look at your iPhone and think about it. Have you ever visited a hospital and had an MRI or CT scan? If so, you might begin to think that the sick-bay technology of a starship seems a lot closer to reality. Long-range scanners that can peer thousands of light years into the universe are already in orbit around the earth and robotic deep-space exploration spacecraft with similar scanners are in development right now. Consider energy sources: Atomic power and anti-matter. Atomic power was already proven science when Star Trek launched, but now we have published results on physical experiments that more than slightly resemble matter/anti-matter reactions. And then, of course, we have the numerous embodiments of 3-D displays that on Star Trek are conveniently called holograms or holographic projections. If I sit in my living room today and watch Avatar on my 3-D LCD TV, it does not take much more imagination to believe I am on the holodeck of a spacecraft or in a virtual world somewhere – well, except for the glasses, and I suspect we will not need to use those for much longer.

When I spoke at the interactive devices session on Wednesday afternoon at Display Week, I learned that my imagination was not running wild enough because some of the commercially viable virtual-world technologies that were talked about there are already way ahead of what I can experience right now. What this means is that we really are living in a time of "wow!" and what is happening today with 3-D displays is just the tip of the iceberg of astounding new innovations coming very soon.

Myself, I have thankfully re-discovered my imagination and found almost magical qualities in some recent entertainment experiences. Even as I write this I am watching a plasma TV that literally displays people larger than they would be in real life and I daresay a lot better looking. I'm amazed at how much the new technologies have enhanced my entertainment experiences and I'm not exaggerating when I reveal that my kids for a long time believed me when I told them it was done with magic. If you are one of those who are working on the next extraordinary innovation, please do not get lost in the details, and if you are someone that provides the money or climate to foster innovation, reward the ones with vivid imaginations and help keep the magic of innovation alive and well.

This month the theme of our issue is LCD technology, and most of it is focused on 3-D and organized for us by our Guest Editor Dr. Phil Bos, Associate Director of the Liquid Crystal Institute and a Professor in the Chemical Physics Interdisciplinary Program at Kent State University. Phil, along with Dr. Achin Bhowmik, Director of Perceptual Computing at Intel Corp., also authored our first frontline technology feature this month, "Liquid-Crystal Technology Advances Toward Future 'True' 3-D Flat-Panel Displays." This article is a great primer on the challenges of making a truly great stereoscopic display system and goes well with my theme of turning imagination into good science. This is the first of a two-part feature that is scheduled to continue next month.

A complementary view of the 3-D LCD space comes from our next frontline technology feature, "Tutorial on 3-D Technologies for Home LCD TVs," written by Dr. Seonki Kim of Samsung Electronics. Dr. Kim details, among other things, the mechanisms for utilizing fast-switching-mode 240-Hz LCDs to produce excellent stereoscopic image separation while maintaining high luminance and contrast. These two features together form a really solid foundation for understanding the state of the art in 3-D television today as well as where it may be going soon.

This month we added a third frontline technology feature after receiving a submission from Dr. Ed Kelley titled simply "Resolving Resolution." The title belies the real meat of the story, which is an innovative and possibly controversial view of the actual perceived resolution of patterned-film-retarder stereoscopic displays. We worked with Ed through the review process of several drafts and I believe this is a "don't miss" contribution to the field of 3-D display-performance characterization. Dr. Kelley is, of course, well known and highly respected by many in the display metrology field and a well-known visionary in that field.

Our view of the display marketplace this month comes from Paul Semenza of DisplaySearch, who contributed "Large TFT-LCD Panels Shift into High Resolution." Paul describes the latest manufacturing investments for large-format 4K x 2K LCDs coming as soon as mid-2012 for commercial introduction. Yes, that is not a typographical error – 3840 x 2160 or even 4096 x 2160 panels in sizes ranging from about 60 to over 80 in. It's hard to imagine but yes, by now I'm getting good at it again. They will not fit into everyone's budget, but for some this may be the next new standard. We always value Paul's insights, which also include a look at tablet PCs and other possible applications for high-resolution panels.

"Transparent Film and Substrate Technology for Touch Screens and Flexible Display Applications" is the focus of our applications topic for this month, contributed by authors Jeff Blake and Richard Paynton of Dontech. The myriad of different ways to coat and process materials to make touch screens, EMI shields, and even flexible displays themselves is ably surveyed by Jeff and Richard. I am very pleased they were able to build this overview for us and I believe many readers will find this a useful reference for their ongoing work.

Keeping up with all the display conferences and trade shows around the world is a daunting task. We try to pick a few each year and give you a glimpse of what is hot at each one. Back in June we sent Steve Sechrist to Display Taiwan, held at Taipei's Nangang Exhibition Conference Center, to have a look for us. He picked the most interesting finds to write about and we are pleased to include them this month.

In addition to these features we also have our regular departments covering Industry News, SID News, and, of course, a great Guest Editorial from Dr. Phil Bos. However, one more item I feel compelled to bring to your attention to is a great story we received from longtime industry veteran Dr. Joseph Castellano, who is a strong supporter of a program called RESEED (Retirees Enhancing Science Education through Experiments and Demonstrations). This effort, staffed by hundreds of volunteers with degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, is aimed at stimulating greater interest in science among students at the middle school level (grades 6, 7, and 8). Most volunteers are retirees and Dr. Castellano is appealing to all of you who are near or in retirement and want to share some of your extensive hard-earned experience with students. I love this concept and can easily imagine the next generation of great scientists and engineers getting their inspiration through a program like this. Imagine that maybe the inventor of the first real-time holographic 3-D virtual-world TV system is just entering 7th grade now. You could be the one who brings the vision, and hence the reality, to our next generation just by giving your time to inspire that student – doesn't seem like that much of a leap, does it? •