Preview: NVIDIA's 3D Blu-ray Playback


3D Blu-ray on the PC

3D Blu-ray on the PC

This summer, NVIDIA is bringing 3D Blu-ray playback to the PC platform. And we have front row tickets to the 3D show.

Now, unless you have been living under a rock for the past year or so, you would have noticed the proliferation of 3D movies in the theaters, the big hype about 3D TVs at consumer trade shows like CES 2010 and even the presence of 3D in our daily papers. Whether you think it's a gimmick, a fad or something that will eventually be as common as color in movies, is irrelevant. What's important is that the whole industry, from Hollywood to the large CE firms showing off their spanking new 3D HDTVs, appears to be fully committed to the 3D trend.

With 3D movies now a fixture in cinemas, the next move is to bring it into the home. 3D TVs have appeared in retail, available from companies like Panasonic and Samsung, with more manufacturers, notably Sony and LG, joining in June. The crucial part, the 3D content is also falling into place, with a handful of 3D Blu-ray movies expected to launch in the later half of the year. In fact, the 3D Blu-ray specification was only made official in Dec 2009, with the content on these discs encoded using MVC, a format that is backwards compatible with older Blu-ray players while allowing stereoscopic 3D streams. With this encoding, you'll get full 1080p content for each eye for only a 50% increase in the disk space required.

So the hardware is there in the form of 3D HDTVs. The content will be following suit, though it's limited to a small number of 3D Blu-ray movies this year, with hardly any 3D broadcasts yet. And come June, you can also watch 3D Blu-ray movies on your PC, thanks to NVIDIA's latest enhancement to its 3D Vision technology.

3D Vision Gets Blu-ray Playback

Even before the current 3D fever, NVIDIA has been able to support stereoscopic 3D in games with its 3D Vision kit and a compatible GeForce graphics cards. We reviewed the 3D Vision kit early last year and the technology - a 120Hz display coupled with wireless, active shutter glasses alternating between feeding your left and right eye with the images at 60Hz, the whole process synchronized by an external IR emitter - remains unchanged. More importantly, the 3D conversion was done by NVIDIA's software and required no input from game developers. This of course meant that the end results varied from game to game, but at its best, the 3D Vision kit worked to improve the level of gaming immersion. 

 

 

The next frontier then is 3D Blu-ray playback and NVIDIA signaled its intentions at CES 2010, with demos of its 3D technology working with 3D Blu-ray. NVIDIA is now ready for a public release, and we managed to get a sneak preview of the technology.

What's Required

This June, NVIDIA will be releasing new drivers that will enable 3D Blu-ray playback on supported NVIDIA graphics cards. Besides the GPU and 3D Vision kit, you'll need a compatible display that supports 3D Vision; basically a 120Hz LCD monitor (no 3D TVs are currently supported at the moment). You can find the basic system requirements for NVIDIA 3D Vision here, including a list of GPUs that support 3D Blu-ray playback, but note that there are some additional hardware and software caveats about playing 3D Blu-ray on your PC. We'll first start off by listing the GPUs which NVIDIA declares hardware assisted 3D Blu-ray playback:-

Supported NVIDIA GPUs for 3D Blu-ray Acceleration
Desktop GPUs Notebook GPUs
  • GeForce GTX 480
  • GeForce GTX 470
  • GeForce GT 340
  • GeForce GT 330
  • GeForce GT 320
  • GeForce GT 240
  • GeForce GTS 360M
  • GeForce GTS 350M
  • GeForce GT 335M
  • GeForce GT 330M
  • GeForce GT 325M
  • GeForce GT 320M

To understand why a selected group of new GPUs can only support hardware assisted 3D Blu-ray playback, you have to bear in mind that 3D Blu-ray titles are more demanding than their non-3D counterparts. This is because stereoscopic 3D streams have higher bitrates due to the specification's requirement for 1080p resolution output alternating between each eye at 60Hz (or 120Hz combined) , which as you can expect is roughly double the workload than standard Blu-ray playback (which is just 1080p resolution at 50/60Hz). Common among the GPUs above is the NVIDIA's newer VP4 video processing engine. To prove the point on the increased bitrates involved for 3D Blu-ray titles, here are a couple of photos taken with the media playback information:-

On the software side of things, Windows 7 is required. According to NVIDIA, Vista is not fully supported and while it's possible to play 3D Blu-ray, there may be some bugs that will affect the experience. Personally, we didn't have time to verify this. Windows XP support naturally is non-existent. Besides the OS, one will need a compatible application to playback the 3D Blu-ray disc. NVIDIA has stated that it has been working with major vendors like ArcSoft, Corel and CyberLink so one can expect the updated versions of these software to include 3D Blu-ray support in the near future. For the demo we tried, we received a copy of CyberLink PowerDVD 9 that supported 3D Blu-ray playback, though CyberLink states that PowerDVD 10 will include 3D Blu-ray support from the get-go. 

Besides the desktop platform, there's also a notebook option. Some of you may have read about the ASUS G51J 3D, a notebook integrated with NVIDIA's 3D Vision from ASUS. While this notebook obviously was for 3D gaming, there will be a upcoming version from ASUS that adds support for 3D Blu-ray playback. This new model will have an internal emitter, which is a boon for users since that's one less component to pack in the laptop bag. It will have the necessary playback application and a more recent GTS 360M graphics core instead of the GTX 260M on the ASUS G51J 3D.

If you have seen the NVIDIA 3D Vision requirements which we linked to earlier on this page, you'll see that the GTS 360M is on the supported list, while the GTX 260M is not. This explains why there will be a newer 3D notebook model from ASUS.

To sum up, we received an ASUS notebook from NVIDIA and the relevant drivers/software to test NVIDIA's 3D Blu-ray playback for both desktop and notebook PC platforms. Read on for our findings.