It may seem like a recent fad, but 3D technology has actually been around for a long time, as far back as the late 1800′s by some accounts but when it comes to 3D as it relates to the PC the technology seems fairly new. Be that as it may, when thinking of 3D PC technology one can’t help but think of NVIDIA. Whether you’re an NVIDIA fanboi or hater, you have to admit that NVIDIA was truly one of the pioneers in terms of bringing 3D technology to the PC market. There were a few small players here and there prior to the company’s foray into the 3D space, but arguably no other company has done more to fuel the 3D fire than NVIDIA with their 3D Vision technology.

What is 3D Vision?
For the uninitiated NVIDIA’s 3D Vision is hardware/software combination that delivers 3D content by utilizing stereoscopic technology (S3D). Essentially 3D Vision is composed for four key required ingredients; NVIDIA 3D Vision Kit, 3D Vision-Ready Display, Compatible NVIDIA Graphics Card and a PC running either Windows Vista or Windows 7.

Requirements for 3D Vision: 3D Vision kit, 3D Vision-Ready Display, NVIDIA GPU and Vista/Win7 PC
Requirements for NVIDIA’s 3D system

The 3D Vision kit is comprised of active shutter glasses, an IR emitter (required to control the glasses) as well as assorted USB cables, protective bag for the glasses, driver disc and assorted sizes of nose bridges for the glasses to accommodate different sized users. In order to make things simpler NVIDIA and a few key vendor partners have begun offering bundles that combine the 3D Vision kit and 3D Vision Ready display, simply connect to your PC with running a compatible NVIDIA graphics card (GeForce 8 series and above, or GeForce 200 series and above for 3D Blu-ray playback) and you’re ready to go.

Content
NVIDIA has worked hard to bring not just a product to the market but a whole ecosystem of 3D content. 3D Vision offers support for the full range of 3D content ranging from 3D photos to over 530 3D games, Blu-ray 3D movies and most recently 3D video content directly through YouTube. NVIDIA also took the initiative to launch their own 3D content website featuring videos, trailers and photos at www.3DVisionLive.com. Also, thanks to Best Buy, NVIDIA and Panasonic, some of the key sports events in the past 12 months were streamed online in 3D, such as PGA Masters, NASCAR or US Open. Some may say this is a noble support effort while others may dismiss it as a requirement due to NVIDIA’s vested interest in 3D Vision’s success, but whichever side you choose there is no denying that the green team has jumped into the 3D waters with both feet.

This is all well and good but the purpose of the Living with 3D series is to evaluate the current 3D solutions on the market and determine their validity. Essentially we will be attempting to complete a very difficult task. We will be working to convey the 3D experience to you via written word and 2D imagery as well as answer a host of other questions. Is 3D a worthwhile technology or merely a passing fad? What does it add (or worse, subtract) from the viewing experience? Does it enhance your gaming experience? Does 3D offer any kind of advantage in gaming? The list goes on and on but at the end of the day we will be answering the question on everyone’s mind: Is this 3D technology worth my hard earned cash? The Living with 3D series will be ongoing, as new products are introduced we will run them through the lab, put them through their paces and let you know what we think.

Testing Methodology
In order test NVIDIA’s 3D Vision we were supplied with the Asus VG236H 23" 1080P Monitor and included 3D Vision bundle. Fulfilling the PC requirements will be our standard Sandy Bridge test rig running an NVIDIA GTX 560 Ti. The 560Ti is a great performance card and can play today’s latest games at reasonable frame rates without breaking the bank, lending itself well to providing the median user experience for 3D Vision.

ASUS VG236H 3D Monitor kit: 120Hz LCD, 3D Glasses and all the necessary cables
ASUS VG236H 3D Monitor kit: 120Hz LCD, 3D Glasses and all the necessary cables

As we mentioned previously, 3D Vision supports numerous avenues of 3D content. Reviewing such varied forms of content and the idiosyncrasies of each in a single article would prove daunting, for both the reviewer AND the reader. Instead we will break up the review into more digestible segments dedicated to the various content forms.

How does it work?
NVIDIA 3D Vision employs stereoscopic technology using the concept of alternate frame sequencing and active shutter glasses. Essentially what this means is that images are displayed on screen for each eye in an alternating pattern, Left Right Left Right and so on. The 3D Vision active shutter glasses use single-pixel resolution LCD screens as lenses that darken to actively block either eye in time with the image display on screen. When the left eye image is displayed, the right eye lens on the glasses darken to block the right eye from viewing the image, when the right eye image is displayed the left eye is blocked (shuttered) and so on. When the screen is viewed without the glasses you see a stereo image with two nearly identical images overlaid on top of each other with a slight offset either left or right. It is generally the offset of these two images that creates the 3D effect.
The shuttering of the lenses is controlled by the IR emitter which works to sync the glasses with the display in terms of when to block each eye. The actual shuttering as well as the alternating display of the images happens very quickly, to the tune of 120FPS, basically 60FPS per eye hence NVIDIA’s requirement for 120Hz displays. The actual shuttering of the lenses is imperceptible to most people, although some users have reported being able to see some degree off flickering out of their peripheral vision.

How NVIDIA's 3D Vision Stereoscopy works: Every rendered frame on the screen closes one shutter on the glasses, either for left or right eye
How NVIDIA’s S3D i.e. 3D Vision works: Every rendered frame on the screen closes one shutter on the glasses, either for left or right eye

One of the drawbacks to the active shutter/alternate frame method is that the 3D content loses brightness. With the constant alternate shuttering of each eye it is almost as if you are watching TV while wearing sunglasses. Display vendors such as Asus are working to overcome this issue by utilizing bright display backlighting or LED displays. With this workaround the image is still somewhere darkened, but now you have darkened and image that was brighter to begin with, resulting in a brighter darkened image?if that makes sense. Another caveat to active shutter/alternate frame is the active shutter glasses themselves. These bad boys originally went for $200 due to the technology involved to make them work and these costs were industry wide, not just NVIDIA. If you plan on having a movie party or multiple friends over to watch the big game in 3D the cost of the glasses can add up quickly. It is important to note however that prices on active shutter glasses have been falling recently and NVIDIA has also dropped the price of their wireless glasses kit to $149, with the second kit being $99. Also, the company introduced wired glasses for $99, but we heard no word on volume discounts at press time.

Perhaps one of the largest benefits to active shutter/alternate frame is image quality in terms of resolution. Since 3D Vision’s alternate frame sequencing ALTERNATES frames for each eye, it can display a full resolution image to each eye, resulting in?you guessed it, full resolution 3D. Other technologies like interleaving alternate ever other line horizontally or vertically (sometimes even checkerboarding the image) to deliver 3D. This is also the way how glassless 3D works and the end result is an overall image that is half resolution as each eye is only seeing half of the image. Also, stereoscopic 3D approach is more angle independent than other solutions, i.e. you should have no issues with multiple glasses watching the same display, unlike alternative technologies which are single-person only (DDD’s TriDef comes to mind).

NVIDIA’s 3D Vision glasses do require a power source. For many competing active shutter glasses this is generally handled by a user-replaceable coin cell battery. NVIDIA has chosen to go a different route, the 3D Vision glasses are rechargeable via USB. This is definitely a welcome innovation. It seems simple but given the choice between buy batteries or simply plugging in the glasses in to recharge is a no brainer. Thumbs up to NVIDIA for getting it right.

The IR emitter for the 3D Vision setup resembles small pyramid and works to synchronize and control the glasses. A backlit NVIDIA logo lets you know the emitter is connected and also acts as a push button to manually turn off the 3D effect. The use of the button is not required however as the 3D Vision software automatically detects (by .exe file associations) when you launch a supported 3D application/game and turns itself on and off automatically. On the back side of the emitter is a scroll wheel that allows you to adjust the "depth" of the 3D image.

Installation is straight forward and NVIDIA’s recent Release 270 and newer drivers the 3D Vision drivers are bundled in. This is yet another welcome addition as previously the 3D Vision drivers were a separate download which required you to make sure you had the correct revision of the 3D Vision driver for the revision of GeForce driver you were using. The software installation runs through a simple wizard to ensure you have all the necessary hardware to run 3D Vision. Once completed the wizard displays a few test patterns and asks you a few short questions to ensure that the 3D is working correctly.

By now I am sure you guys just want me to just hurry up and get to the 3D content testing, which I will, right after this 1980′s sitcom style ending? stay tuned for the next installment of Living with 3D where we dive into 3D gaming and determine just how immersive it truly is.