The third dimension is now open to the public. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a number of budget-conscious 3D-imaging products hit the market.
Panasonic announced a 3D camcorder for $1,399, as well as a 3D lens for their G-series Micro Four Thirds cameras. Sony spilled the beans on a batch of 3D-ready point-and-shoots. Now Fujifilm have entered the ring (again) with a new 3D point-and-shoot of their own, and it looks like the most formidable model on the market.
The W3 stands out because it has the right hardware for stereoscopic 3D: two lenses and two sensors, the same system used in professional 3D-imaging equipment (James Cameron would approve). In theory, the result is greater depth, clarity, and realism than the workarounds we’ve seen in other cameras.
For example, Panasonic’s 3D add-on uses two lenses, but feeds the offset images to a single sensor, so the resolution gets chopped in half, then stretched back to its full-width after the processor creates the 3D effect. Sony’s single-lens point-and-shoots rely completely on clever software to create the 3D effect.
The W3 is actually Fujifilm’s second stereoscopic camera. Last year’s W1 featured similar specs and design, but unless you’re a 3D enthusiast or industry spectator, you probably didn’t even know it existed: Fujifilm made a very limited number of W1 units available, and only sold them through three retailers.
There’s much higher consumer demand for 3D tech this year, and the W3 is ready for prime-time. While the rest of the market is still peddling first-generation 3D TVs and cameras, working out the kinks, Fujifilm is a step ahead -- though early-generation 3D-tech limitations still rear their head.
Design and Performance
The W3 is bulky for a compact camera, presumably because of the extra hardware, but the upside is that it has a huge 3.5-inch LCD that is -- say it with me -- auto-stereoscopic. That means glasses-free. You can see your 3D images and videos on the screen, using nothing but your eyeballs. There’s a slight learning curve -- it took me a minute to find the right viewing distance and angle to get the 3D effect, but it’s a cool effect when you warm up to it. Of course, the W3 can also output 3D images and video to a 3D-capable TV via HDMI 1.4. Yes, you’ll need the glasses, but aside from that it seems like a painless plug-and-play experience. Fujifilm claims that it hooks right up to any of the five major 3D TV brands, no additional set-up or installations required.
Shooting the 3D content is another matter. The pre-shot demo images (10 megapixels) and videos (720p HD) that Fujifilm showed us were impressive, definitely designed to show off the W3’s potential. The depth-effect was excellent, the image and video quality was solid, and floating objects like bubbles looked surreal. But those demos were likely shot in ideal conditions, on a tripod, maybe even on a track for maximum stability.
Off-the-cuff pictures, on the other hand, were hit-or-miss. Spontaneous shots of us writers and analysts in the demonstration room came out blurry and unbalanced on the 3D TV. Apparently there’s a sweet spot for shooting 3D images and video, about five feet away from the subject, so some pre-planning and composing is necessary. Action shots probably won’t come out well, which is a let-down. The format obviously needs some work.
The W3’s interface is similar to your standard point-and-shoot, except that mode dial and menus are peppered with options for 3D shooting. The W3 does support 2D shooting, and even images shot in 3D can be viewed in 2D as well -- since a 3D image is just two standard jpegs wrapped together in a special format (.mpo), the W3 just displays the left-eye image when you need to down-convert. That’s a well thought-out feature.
The W3 looks and performs like a regular compact point-and-shoot, with a three-dimensional twist. At $499, it’s an affordable solution for anyone who wants to create 3D content. We haven’t tested Panasonic’s or Sony’s 3D workarounds yet, but we expect that the W3 will emerge as the best of the bunch this year, simply because it has the right hardware for the job.
Still, the market for a camera like this is extremely limited. If you don’t have some sort of big 3D display in your house, you really have no good reason to buy this camera. Even if you have the ability to view what you’ve shot with the W3, keep in mind the limitations of this new format. Still, the wow-factor is hard to top, and kudos to Fujifilm for being so far ahead of the curve on this one.