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The Future of TV: Light Field Emitting Televisions


In this series “The Future of TV”, I will explore concepts that I believe could have a big impact on television. Concepts beyond what most people are thinking about today.

People often ask me what is the “next big thing” is for television? They sometimes ask this for true insight but generally it is just as an ice breaker.  As with any industry, the history of the “next big thing” is full of successes and failures. For a while the “next big thing” was thought to be 3D. Early in the hype cycle for 3D I rejected it for being just that, hype. This was partially influenced by my daughter when she saw the Pixar’s Up in 3D, she stomped out of the cinema and asked to never go to a 3D showing ever again, she was six at the time. After all, 3D TV and cinema is essential a parlor trick (stereoscopy) invent by the Victorians during the early days of photography. By showing two different images to your eyes, your brain is tricked into thinking you are looking at an object with depth and not a flat image. But our brains use other techniques to detect depth that 3D TV and cinema don’t exhibit, the lack of which stresses our brains, leading to headaches and the like. One of these techniques is looking for parallax, which is where, as you move your head, the objects in your field of vision change positon relative to each other.  Of course, there is also the issue with having to wear special glasses, which can be heavy and can get lost.

The other big hype which I called out early on was curve television screens. This was driven by TV manufacturing executives trying to make a marketing advantage out of a technical capability not by consumer demand. The advantage being they could manufacture bendy screens. Apart from the fact curved screens only really work well when viewed from a sweet spot, the real issue with them is they act like a lens and pick up every single light in a room, causing problems for viewing unless you favour watching TV in the dark.

In between 3D and curved screens, we have 4K, which, for me is clearly a winner. Though in my view, it is the increase colour depth and accuracy (also referred to as wider colour gamut) that people see, not the improved image resolution. High dynamic range (HDR) has followed, then next generation audio (NGA), then higher frame rate (HFR) and in 2020 we will get 8K. For me, writing about these is a bit too short term. So, what are the radical shifts in TV technology beyond these? My, over a glass of wine answer is, light field emitting televisions, which amongst other things will give us real 3D.

It is likely you have never heard of light field emitting televisions, as, as far as I’m aware, I’ve made the term up. But it is possible you have heard of light field capture and the short lived Lytro camera.


The concept of the Lytro camera was that it captured not only the colour and intensity of the light rays hitting its sensor but also the direction of the light. Knowing the direction of the light rays allows you to know where that light has come from. When the captured photos are rendered on a screen the information about the lights direction can be used to modify the image. The main feature demonstrated by Lytro was, post production, to change both the depth of field and the point of focus. You could also, within limits, shift the perspective of the image. The consumer camera failed as the technology could not be made to work at a viable consumer price point, all during a time of declining camera sales.


Today some of the effect the Lytro camera achieved are possible with two lens cameras found on the latest Smartphone. Portrait lighting on an iPhone X is a good example. Despite the failure of a consumer camera, the management at Lytro still had faith in the value of light field capture and have segued into VR capture and cinema cameras. These two application show the value of having a camera technology that captures the location of objects. For VR it means a single stationary camera in a room can enable a VR viewer to move around within the room. For cinema it means that 3D visual effects can be seamlessly integrated with the original footage without green screens.

A light field emitting televisions is a television that can not only generate light but also send it in different directions. A light ray would be captured by a camera and then a light ray would be emitted by the television travelling in the same direction as it was capture.

This means that looking at a television screen would be like looking through a window. If you move you head or position the image would appear to change, you would experience parallax. You would experience true 3D.

With 8K or even 4K, high-dynamic range and high frame rate you would not be able to tell a light field emitting television from a window. Like the Turing test for artificial intelligence, I propose a Huntington test. An observer would stand 1 metre from a window and a screen, both showing the same scene and the observer must determine which is the window.

Will true 3D help with storytelling? That I’m not sure. We should remember that making cinema more realistic (i.e. going to 48 frames per second) has been rejected by audiences. But I do think it will make a big difference to telepresence. Imagine interacting with people across the world when your brain thinks there is just a thin sheet of glass between you. Imagine a glass partition between two offices which are actually separated by hundreds of miles.


The value of light field emission for telepresence is easy to grasp, but does it have value for main stream television? One of the main values of television is that it is relaxing. After a hard day at work, millions of people like to sit in front of their televisions to relax with a good story. In a relaxed state, we are more susceptible to advertising messages, which drives the business model for much television. Research has shown that the more realistic television is the more relaxing people find it, which gives the viewers and advertisers more of what they want.

4K, HDR, HFR and NGA are all driving towards a more realistic television experience. Light field emitting television would take realism to the end game.

I’m not aware of anyone building light field emitting televisions, but I’m confident someone somewhere is doing it or at least trying. Though, they might not be calling them light field emitting, the alterative term is plenoptic, if you want something more scientific sounding.


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