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Low-cost 3D Cameras

3D-one's initial 3D camcorder, the CP30.

3D-one's initial 3D camcorder, the CP30.

2010 is really starting to look like the year of 3D. How's that? January started out with any number of companies at CES touting 3D playback capability. One major player, Panasonic, promised to deliver a 3D camcorder later this year.

(Check out Mark Schubin's blog page on the Panasonic debut for his critique of the camcorder.)

Lots of other companies, startups, and even DIYers are jumping into the 3D production market. While you might not want to plan a professional production around most of the technology yet, some of these rigs can still give you an idea of what's involved in the process of 3D production while costing much less than the $21,000 list price announced for the Panasonic camcorder.

One demo posted online from students at Weber State University in Utah, for example, featured an inexpensive setup relying on two Kodak Zx1 consumer point-and-shoot pocket cameras. While the setup doesn't offer any sound and relies on the older anaglyph (red-blue filtered glasses) approach, the hardware, including cameras and tripod, cost only $250. Meanwhile, the enterprising students edited it using standard-issue Adobe Premiere Pro CS4. You can get a flavor of low-rent inventiveness via their video on Vimeo.

Another company, Virtual Realities, solves the need for generating two video streams via an add-on adapter. The Galveston, Texas-based company's NuView 3D adapter "attaches easily" to nearly any consumer video camera and can played back in any standard DVD player, according to the company. The catch here is that the 3D effect only comes about by using the company's head-mounted devices such as the Virtual Visor or the VR Pro 3D Video.

Virtual Realities makes most of its money by reselling VR products, input/output devices, and its own product line of head-mounted displays and motion-tracking systems. With just a single specific 3D capture device in its product line, a curious producer might not understand how serious the company is in developing the system further. No mention is made in the available literature of how you go about editing your 3D footage, for example. But at a $499 list price, you have room to experiment.

DXG's tiny 3D camera.

DXG's tiny 3D camera.

Perhaps an even more unlikely source of a 3D camcorder is Taiwan-based DXG. The company makes inexpensive pocket cams, compact camcorders using slightly long-in-the-tooth technology but clothed in fashionable colors and form factors.

While you may blanch at the thought of toting a hot-pink pocket-sized camcorder around ("the official video camera of Miss Teen USA 2009"), the company will be delivering a dual-lens stereoscopic model this June that with a list price of $400. It includes a 7in. viewer, which it turns out is the only way you can view 3D from this tiny camcorder. That is, besides a unique built-in 3D viewfinder.

However, since a 3D camcorder ideally replicates the distance between an average person's eyes (interocular distance), the tiny dual-lens arrangement inherently can't give you the results you might hope for because the 3D effect for anything beyond a few feet from the lens won't work.

Finally, it outputs standard-definition VGA—not something with much of a future— although for playback on the small screen it probably works out OK. So again, even with some serious limits, a curious producer might find this approach a relatively inexpensive way to further explore the limits of 3D shooting.

One company that is showing working product that goes beyond half-way attempts is Leiden, Netherlands-based 3D-one.

The company offers four 3D camcorder models in 720p and 1080p versions with 1/2in. imagers unlike the Panasonic model, which uses imagers closer to 1/4in. 3D-one also offers lenses that are spaced farther apart than Panasonic's model, though Panasonic said that it hasn't set the final specifications yet.

The 3D-one camcorders also offer a 3D viewfinder, adjustable convergence control, 16-bit audio at 48kHz, and 12X zoom. There are a variety of connectivity options (HDMI, 100Mbps Ethernet), established standards (recording MJPEG to AVI files), and recording to built-in hard drives. This small company from a small European country might just be one of the first to deliver a usable 3D rig.

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