MIT is Trying to Solve First-World 3D Movie Theater Problems

The first 3D movie I saw at the theater was Avatar. And I regretted it. Instantly. Two and a half hours later and I was hurting. I had an excruciating headache. It probably didn’t help I was sitting way off to one side. I guess that’s what I get for getting there late.

The only other movie I saw in 3D was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The movie was great. The 3D? It was ok. Nothing mind-blowing, but there were a couple of cool scenes. If I could just watch it without those damn glasses.

3D glasses movie theater

Yeah, those evil bastards.

The folks at MIT feel the same way. A team of scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science joined forces to create a 3D experience we all can enjoy. One without those silly glasses.

It’s called ‘Cinema 3D,’ and uses a mix of lenses and mirrors to give everyone watching a 3D movie watching experience without the extra eyewear. I know my brother will love not having to toss in contacts just to see a movie. Another bonus? It works no matter where you are sitting in the theater.

Before I go any further, I need to pump the brakes. This tech isn’t ready to hit your local theater. The team of researchers are optimistic about future versions coming to a theater near you, but for right now – this is a prototype.

Alright, let’s dive into what makes ‘Cinema 3D’ tick.

First, 3D without glasses already exists. The problem? “Existing approaches to glasses-free 3-D require screens whose resolution requirements are so enormous that they are completely impractical,” says MIT professor Wojciech Matusik.

MIT researchers needed to create parallax barriers (slits showing a different set of pixels to each eye to simulate depth) that would work in a theater setting. The problem with this method is it works great when parallax barriers at a consistent distance from the viewer. But no so good when there are multiple viewers at multiple angles and distances according to MIT.

One solution is to build new physical projectors that cover the “angular range of the audience,” according to the MIT press release. But that typically comes at the expense of lower resolution.

Cinema 3D puts multiple parallax barriers in one display. Each viewer in the theater sees a parallax barrier perfected for their seat. No matter the distance. No matter the angle.

“The authors [of Cinema 3D] cleverly exploited the fact that theaters have a unique set-up in which every person sits in a more or less fixed position the whole time,” said Gordon Wetzstein, an assistant professor at Stanford University who was not involved in the research.

In theory, anyways. Some of the articles you see about MIT creating a 3D glasses-less movie display isn’t exactly true. Unless there idea of a theater screen is the size of a pad of paper.

“It remains to be seen whether the approach is financially feasible enough to scale up to a full-blown theater,” says Matusik. “But we are optimistic that this is an important next step in developing glasses-free 3-D for large spaces like movie theaters and auditoriums.”

Bottom line? The technology could work in any scenario where multiple people are viewing 3D content at the same time. The team demonstrated Cinema 3D lets viewers from different parts of an auditorium see 3D images at high resolution. The next step is building a larger version of the display and to keep tweaking the optics for higher image resolutions.

We won’t be watching Rogue One without 3D glasses. But you never know, maybe one of the future Avatar movies will use it. There’s going to be four of them after all.