This gets asked about once a week on our questions and answers section, so I’m writing this in the hopes that maybe it’ll clear things up for some readers. The short answers is: no, there’s a 99% chance you can’t watch 3D movies or play games in 3D on your computer. No piece of software is going to change that, and here’s why. If you have a 3DTV though, read on to find out what else you need to get it all working.
Please note: I’m not going to address Red/Blue pseudo-3D in this article. Any computer can display something in red/blue as this article from 2009 showed you. It’s an old technology, the quality is terrible, and this is not what is referred to as 3D in the year 2011. You can also view 3D on any monitor by just going cross-eyed if you really want.
It’s not about your graphics card
Any modern video card is capable of outputting a signal that can used to drive a 3D display. It’s often said that you need NVidia, but that’s only because they’ve partnered with numerous manufacturers to produce NVidia branded 3dVision products which are relatively easy to setup (or require no set up at all in the case of certain laptops)
AMD/ATi cards can also output 3D, but there are no ATi branded 3D monitor/glasses packages you can buy, and the drivers provided by ATI do not support 3D natively. Ignoring the monitor side of things for a moment, if you have an ATi card then you’ll also need some third party drivers that convert the signal from your ATi into whatever format is needed by your display, and those drivers have an additional cost.
The most recent iteration of ATi Radeon drivers have introduced some sort of native 3D output. You still need the additional drivers, but they have partnered with ATi to offer a special free licence for ATi owners.
This is the most important part of your setup, and this is the reason you can’t get 3D on any old LCD monitor. Normal LCD screens simply don’t have the capability to display 3D images using either of the more popular techniques outlined below. (Images from Panasonic)
Active 3D displays – the kind that have glasses which need a battery – require a monitor with a very high refresh rate to send twice as many image frames as usual. Your typical LCD display is simply too slow to display images at the speed required.
Passive 3D displays – with their lightweight glasses – require a special filter inside the monitor which polarize the light.
Lenticular 3D displays – such as the Nintendo 3DS, which don’t require glasses at all – have a special filter inside which angles the different images directly into your eyes. There are no consumer level lenticular displays currently available.
That’s why your average monitor cannot do 3D. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
Okay, we’ve established that your video card is technically capable of 3D, but chances are your monitor isn’t. Assuming you do actually own either a 3DTV, or purchased a specific monitor and glasses package deal – now what?
Nvidia card + 3D Ready monitor package: If you ‘re willing to purchase a new monitor, this is the easiest route to go. You can either buy a packaged deal with glasses + monitor, or you can buy a compatible 3D Vision Ready monitor and get the glasses separately. Either way is likely to set you back about $500, not including the graphics card itself.
Compatible 3DTV + Recent NVidia Card: You need to purchase a special driver called 3DTV Play from NVidia for $40. This will only work with more recent Nvidia cards (Certain members of the GT series), and only if your 3DTV is compatible with HDMI 1.4a (check the compatibility list here).
3DTV + Older Nvidia Card: You need to purchase third party drivers for about $50.
3DTV + ATi Card: You will need to download additional third party drivers, but you may or may not need to purchase a licence for them.
You will also need to investigate exactly which 3D output format your 3DTV (or projector) requires. There’s quite a variety of formats out there, so you’ll need to look this up specifically for your TV and set the drivers correctly. If you don’t understand the manual, please post your model number in the comments and I’d be happy to look this up for you.
You don’t need any additional software to play games in 3D. Just the launch the game in full-screen, and the drivers should automatically kick in.
What about movies though?
Firstly, there are ways to magically turn a regular non-3D into a 3D movie but the result is terrible and I’m not going to talk about it here. I’m going to assume you have either specifically downloaded 3D videos, or have a 3D BluRay disc.
3D BluRay: All you need is a Bluray player capable of outputting the 3D. Cyberlink PowerDVD is the only player I know of that can do this currently, and it should have come with your computer or BluRay drive. Obviously you can’t play BluRay disks on your computer if you don’t actually have a BluRay drive.
3D-AVIs: These are a specific 3D file format and require a special player. NVidia bundles an appropriate 3D player, but for non-NVidia users you’ll need to purchase Stereoscopic Player from here.
Side-By-Side AVIs: These are kind you might download from a torrent site if you were so inclined, usually in the form of “3d blu-ray rips”. They come in a regular AVI format, and you can identify them easily because when you open them, they’ll be two of the same movie playing side by side. These can be played full-screen directly in VLC if you’re connecting to a 3DTV that understand side-by-side format; but to play them on a 3DVision or other 3D monitor, or a 3DTV that doesn’t understand side-by-side format, you’ll need the NVidia 3D player or Stereoscopic player that let’s you set the output format.
I really hope this has cleared it up for some of you. The truth is that there are so many different formats out there for both displaying and storing 3D, and even for a geek like me getting them talking to each other is no easy task; so it’s understandable to be a little confused. If you’d like any more details or clarification on the points mentioned here, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments.