A new breakthrough could allow sci-fi fans to play movies like Star Wars in the comfort of their own home without the need for glasses. It’s all thanks to a new algorithm that can convert existing 3D films into a format understood by automultiscopic displays, which are screens that don’t require glasses but have lacked content. The technology, dubbed Home3D, is the work of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. The team hopes that it will transform 3D into a natural aspect of films that viewers don’t even need to think about.

“It must not create an extra burden for the user, because people don’t want to have extra effort to do basically the same thing,” Petr Kellnhofer, postdoctoral associate, tells Inverse. Kellnhofer was lead author on the paper about Home3D, which he will present at Los Angeles’s SIGGRAPH computer graphics conference later this month.

Current films require a decision to be made. If a director chooses to make a 3D film, the viewer will have to wear glasses throughout.

The picture on conventional 3D TVs looks blurry without glasses.
The picture on conventional 3D TVs looks blurry without glasses.

But choosing to create a 2D film means giving up the chance to use an exciting technology to improve the experience. Films don’t always need 3D sections, and MIT’s breakthrough could mean directors only using it where it makes sense. Kellnhofer pointed to Star Wars and Gravity as films where the 3D was used to good effect.

“If the 3D comes with the movie, and you don’t have to pay by giving up other features like viewing comfort with the glasses, then it’s always nice to have it,” Kellnhofer says. “The movie is intended to be watched with that.”

The display the team used to test Home3D isn’t particularly exotic. They used a standard 4K LCD display (4K resolution is needed to maintain quality) and placed a transparent sheet with dark stripes and transparent slits over the top, known as a parallax barrier. The barrier cost several hundred dollars, but this is because the team used a special printing service. Mass manufacturing could significantly bring the cost down.

Home3D knows which part of the screen corresponds to which viewing angle, so it distributes multiple images over the screen that are then portioned out by the barrier. The technology runs from a regular GPU, but in the future it could come in the form of a chip placed inside the TV. Home3D also allows users to change the level of 3D in a film, much like the slider on the Nintendo 3DS.

Even with the barrier, the screen still works like a regular 2D TV, and this seamless switching is important. Home3D can detect when a film is not in 3D and pass it through normally, so the user doesn’t need to switch on a 3D function just to see the effects. Similar to HDR films that display a wider set of colors on supported TVs, future movie buyers may get a pleasant surprise when they buy a future copy of Star Wars and find lightsabers flying out of the screen on what looks like a regular TV.

“I especially like when some objects or particles are floating in the air. That usually looks very nice, but scenes where two people are talking, I guess it’s not as exciting,” Kellnhofer says. “In one of the latest Star Wars movies, they were fighting in this forest, and it was burning, and there was this ash that was flying in the air. It was quite nice.”

Home3D also frees filmmakers from straining users’ eyes. Kellnhofer points to 3D depth statistics that shows, over time, movies have adopted techniques to avoid making filmgoers nauseous during viewings. Home3D adds a new element to this by allowing directors to make entire scenes 2D within a 3D film.

“The idea is to have 3D where it should be, so if some of the parts of the movie don’t benefit from 3D, they don’t have to have it,” Kellnhofer says.

The technology is in its early stages, but the signs are promising that it could revitalize interest in 3D. In user studies where participants were asked to view clips from The Avengers and Big Buck Bunny, participants rated Home3D as 60 percent higher in quality than existing approaches to 3D.

Watch the technology in action here:

If Home3D comes to market, it could be an exciting breakthrough for the world of 3D.

Photos via Getty Images / Ethan Miller, Annie Leibovitz for 'Vanity Fair'