I’ve always thought that 3-D gadgets were like Twitter—impressive and charming, but rarely worth the fuss. In film, Hollywood’s garish three-dimensional visuals fail to disguise its typically two-dimensional characters and one-dimensional plots, and I can’t be the only person who balks at the idea of donning clunky glasses to watch TV at home. So I approached Fujifilm’s new FinePix Real 3D W3 digital camera full of doubt.
I was wrong—this is one 3-D gadget that makes sense. It helps that Fujifilm has ditched the glasses.
Like other cameras with twin lenses—which have been around, in one form or another, for over a century—the W3 combines two separate photographs into a single 3-D view. The W3’s "autostereo" screen, however, shows 3-D images instantly, without the need for special spectacles, as lenticular images: A series of tiny lens elements above the LCD direct light to each eye. The W3 is also the first consumer camera to shoot high-definition (720p) movies in 3-D.
The effect was immediately impressive, if disconcerting. The moment I looked into the generous 9-centimeter (3.5-inch) LCD, subjects in the foreground were clearly distinct from the background, which receded into the camera as though I were peering into a tiny puppet theater. However, objects close to the camera had ghostly double outlines that refused to line up, and both the 3-D effect and the screen’s overall brightness fluctuated as I moved my head, or the camera, from side to side.
I could adjust the display’s level of "3-D–ness" (parallax) with a control lever on top of the camera, but the other problems are inherent to the W3’s lenticular technology. Moreover, images are only 3-D horizontally. Turn the camera on its side to capture a portrait view and the effect disappears.
The camera’s twin lenses and twin image sensors allow for some other interesting options. In Advanced 2-D mode, you can set the right and left lenses to work as separate cameras. You can vary the sensitivity, the white balance, or even the focal length for each one, allowing ambivalent shutterbugs to shoot simultaneously in wide angle with the right lens and in telephoto with the left.
Its twin lenses aside, the W3 handles like a run-of-the-mill compact from a few years ago. It’s heavy (250 grams) and bulky (124 by 66 by 28 millimeters), focusing and playback are sluggish, and the 3x zoom is, by today’s standards, slow and short. Images and video are bright and colorful but low on detail, and they suffer from smeary digital noise in low light. More annoyingly, with the right lens situated just below the shutter release, one of my fingers often crept into the shot.
Three-dimensional stills and movies looked fine on the camera, but options for viewing them elsewhere remain limited. A mini HDMI cable (about US $10) allows easy connection to 3-D–ready televisions—but then you’re back to wearing glasses. Fujifilm’s own Real 3D V1 viewer ($500), has a sharp 8-inch autostereo screen but can’t show movies. You can also upload 3-D images to Fujifilm’s awkward SeeHere service and receive 5- by 7-inch lenticular 3-D prints through the mail two weeks later, at a pricey $7 each. Fortunately, the W3 saves a standard 10-megapixel JPEG image alongside each 3-D file.
Despite the difficulties of sharing images and the limitations of both screen and camera, the W3 does have a whiff of revolution about it. Even the dreariest holiday snaps and the most pedestrian home movies acquire a naturalistic luster in 3-D, and I defy anyone to use it in public without gathering a crowd of excited passersby. After spending a week in its company, I will find it difficult to return to shooting in a paltry two dimensions. Just don’t ask me to tweet about it.
This article originally appeared online in December 2010.
Contributing Editor Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with a particular interest in robotics, transportation, green technologies, and medical devices. In 2012, he wrote an in-depth article for IEEE Spectrum on failures in AED defibrillators that won the Grand Neal Award from American Business Media. In 2014, he was Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and in 2015 he won the AAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award.