3-D TV: adding some depth to `Dallas'? Perhaps, but first use of video system is likely to be industrial

If Lenny Lipton has his way, you will soon be watching true three-dimensional television in your living room. While the basic idea is not new, Mr. Lipton's 3-D system -- produced by his privately held Stereographics Corporation -- has been generating considerable interest in a number of corners.

People use visual clues to get in-depth information, but one key factor is the slight differences in the view seen from each eye, separated by a few inches. Lipton's system uses twin cameras mounted with the same separation as a person's eyes.

Pictures from each camera are put on standard video tape in alteration. Each of the views is repeated 60 times per second, the same rate as currently used in broadcast television. The viewer puts on a visor that has lenses made from large liquid crystals. These alternate between clear and opaque in synchronization with the television so that each eye receives the proper view.

``It is very comfortable to watch and has a dramatic 3-D effect,'' reports Eric Rosenthal, general manager of owned and operated stations at ABC. He is preparing a 3-D demo tape using the Stereographic system for presentation to ABC executives this summer.

For some time, 3-D has been the holy grail of the video industry. The problem has been technology. Early stereoscopes required viewers to hold their heads rigidly. The red-and-blue glasses popular in the 1950s distorted colors and caused eyestrain. Polarizing glasses suffer from the requirement that the lenses must be kept almost perfectly parallel to the screen in order to work.

The Stereographics system is the first he has seen that is adequate for broadcast, the ABC manager says. It will be the 1990s at the earliest, however, before 3-D can be beamed into the home, he adds.

According to Lipton, entertainment is a longer-term market. Right now Stereographics is focusing on more specialized uses, including computer-aided design and manufacture, mapmaking, flight simulation, computer-chip inspection, and microsurgery.

One of those experimenting with the system for such a purpose is the Ford Motor Company.

``We are trying to develop the tools we need to replace clay models with [a computer-aided design] system. To do that, we have to know what things look like,'' explains Steve Westin, system and methods analyst at Ford's Experimental Advanced Technology Studios. One way to do this is 3-D computer graphics.

Clay models are very expensive and require a lot of room to store, the auto analyst says. But their biggest drawback is that they take a long time to build. Ford is very concerned about the fact that the Japanese can go from initial concept of a new-car design to production 2.5 years faster than United States manufacturers can.

``Three-D stereo might help us chop a few months off that,'' Mr. Westin explains.

There are technical difficulties that must be resolved before the 3-D system can be used in routine operations. Currently it takes too much technical expertise to operate. And his company would like higher resolution as well as a computer system that supplies it with higher quality images, the Ford expert says.

There are also some major technical obstacles that must be overcome to adapt the Stereographics system for broadcast television.

One is cost. Lipton maintains that the additional price of adding his system to TV is comparable to that involved in going from black-and-white to color. But currently the cost of the glasses required are $2,000 a pair -- clearly prohibitive.

Also, Stereographic video cannot be viewed on ordinary TV sets.

Lipton, however, argues that these problems can be overcome. If they are, 3-D may replace TV and in the popular lexicon ``the window into a magic world'' that so intrigued him as a boy may become a commonplace rather than an exotic marvel.

In his youth, Lipton was enthralled with 3-D movies and comic books. He drew his own 3-D comic strip and projected it with an opaque projector. Like most children, he gradually outgrew his fascination and went on to other things.

Then, about 10 years ago, the filmmaker was strolling down the aisle of an import shop. ``Suddenly, I had this idea of how to build a 3-D television system,'' he recalls.

It proved a major changing point in his life. First he researched and wrote a book, ``Foundations of the Stereoscopic Cinema.''

For the next six years, he worked part-time on his stereoscopic system. By 1981 Lipton had a prototype, founded a company, Stereographics Corporation, based in San Rafael, Calif., and began devoting all his time to the effort.

He says that entrepreneuring is ``a combined aesthetic as well as technical challenge that engages me in the way that nothing else has.''

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