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Glasses-free 3D movies may be coming to a theater near you

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3D video, despite never really succeeding as a consumer-level product, still has some success today in movie theaters, as more and more big-budget movies are released in 3D to try and squeeze a few more dollars out of patrons. In fact, we've reached the point where as opposed to being the occasional novelty, it's rare nowadays to see a major blockbuster that doesn't have a 3D release.

But there are drawbacks to 3D movies: cinematically, the polarizing glasses also result in darker, less vibrant perception of the movie, to say nothing of the environmental effects of producing millions of the plastic glasses each year.

A new system for glasses-free 3D in movie theaters

But a new paper from researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and the Weizmann Institute of Science's Computer Vision Lab may help alleviate these issues, with a new system for glasses-free 3D in movie theaters.

Current technology allows for glasses-free 3D on a smaller scale, using what are known as "parallax barriers" which uses slits to only allow each eye to see different parts of the screen, generating a 3D effect. But because the specific requirements of the barrier require it to be at precise distance and angle to the viewer for the 3D effect to work, it’s impractical for large theaters with multiple audience members.

The Cinema 3D system takes advantage of the fact that moviegoers don’t move around much once they’ve reached their seats. It uses multiple parallax barriers that are built into the screen, blocking different parts of the image for different locations in the theater, offering a 3D effect to specific angles. Then, an array of mirrors and lenses helps reproduce that effect across the wider area of the audience, ensuring that the parallax barrier is shown correctly to create an identical 3D effect for each specific seat in the theater, regardless of location.

The current prototype works with a screen "just barely larger than a pad of paper"

But while Cinema 3D may one day let you see Star Wars in 3D without a pair of polarized glasses blocking the view, the technology still has a long way to go. MIT reports that the current prototype works with a screen "just barely larger than a pad of paper," while requiring 50 sets of lenses and mirrors. The research team hopes to improve on these issues as time goes on, with the goal of one day reaching a large enough scale for movie theater auditoriums.