As much as I would have liked to, I did not like Tim Burton's Alice

Alice in WonderlandI took (my) Alice to the movies this week-end, and we saw Tim Burton's Alice in 3D. I love Tim Burton's universe. But this time it just didn't work for me.
Maybe it's because I've recently read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, but the whole foundation of the movie seems utterly absurd. In a bad way.
All events *should* be absurd but should make sense in their own weird way. Alice should be the one who tries to make sense in an absurd world.
Instead of that, we have a relatively normal world with slightly mad characters. there is a plot, and even a quest.
But worst of all, Alice as a warrior in a shiny armor? Alice in Wonderland as an action flick? Wow. And when Alice recounts the six impossible things she's done today, she sounds like Rambo, not Alice.
It's OK to take an existing work and make it your own, but this is not it. It's not even very personal: Burton can do so much better than that.
The only moment of grace for me was when Alice remembers her previous visits.
Anyway, (my) Alice liked it so it wasn't a complete waste of time...


How to build 2D glasses

My two pairs of 2D glasses It’s the week-end, which is the perfect time for a slightly off-topic post. It’s still engineering of sorts though in that it provides what I think is an original and cheap solution to a real problem.

3D movies are all the rage recently. But they are not comfortable for everyone. A friend of mine recently went with her family to see Avatar in 3D and instead of enjoying this rather good movie experience, she had to leave the theater after 20 minutes, suffering from a terrible headache. Of course, removing the glasses is not a solution because you then see both of the images –the ones destined for your left and right eyes– at the same time, blurring most of the screen.

Before I explain my solution to this problem, let me explain how modern 3D movies work.

Most 3D viewing technologies rely on providing a different image to the right and left eye. They are not reproducing an actual 3D structure like holography does. Rather, they feed later into the series of events that end up with perceived volumes. It works fine for movies, but you will never be able to walk into or around a scene with any of these techniques. Holodeck they are not.

The problem is to project both images on the same screen but still allow goggles to separate them. Several approaches exist, the most simple being the infamous red and blue glasses that use the plasticity of the brain when perceiving colors. Another interesting approach is to re-use retinal persistence not just to make what is a series of static images look like something that moves, but to multiplex two versions of the same movie into one. In other words, slice time, alternate left and right images and synchronize that with shutters on each eye. This has the advantage that it can work without special screens or projectors, only special glasses and a feed into the sync signal of the screen or of its video source.

What is used in movie theaters is quite different though and relies on a subtle quality of light that our eyes are completely blind to. Our visual sensors (a.k.a. eyes) are fantastic devices but are quite limited in a number of ways: they only perceive three color ranges out of the infinitely fine light spectrum, they frequently go out of tune and require correction and surgical intervention, and they do not see polarization at all. That last quality opens a uniquely neat way of creating stereoscopic vision.

Polarization is a quality of all transverse waves (of which light waves are one example and sound waves are not). Transverse waves are the propagation of a displacement that is orthogonal to the direction of propagation. Because we live in a three-dimensional space, that leaves two directions for the wave to wiggle in addition to the propagation direction. A light ray aimed directly at you may vibrate horizontally or vertically, or in a combination of both, but you won’t see the difference because the eye only sees the amplitude and some frequency information, not that directionality. This means that you can have two completely independent signals at any given frequency (which for light means color) simultaneously propagating in the same direction. You can see where this is leading: you can have the left and right images coexist in the same beam. All you need is to separate those images with glasses that see only one direction to create the illusion of volume.

Early polarized movies were using the linear polarization that I just described in a technique that is older than you may realize. For example, when I was a kid, I saw Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder in 3D using linearly polarized glasses.

Modern 3D movies use a variation of polarization called circular polarization where light is split not in horizontal and vertical components but in clockwise and counter-clockwise rotating components. This has the advantage of better maintaining the illusion when you rotate your head. It’s not perfect because the images are still shot with a horizontal offset but it definitely helps.

In both cases, the left and right images travel on the two polarized components of light and they are split by the glasses before they reach the eye. As you can see, it’s a good thing for all this to work that we only have two eyes…

So what do we do for my poor friend who can’t watch those movies for any prolonged period of time? Well, that’s fairly easy, we suppress the 3D effect by feeding her only one of the two images. We do that by building her a pair of 2D glasses that filter out and send the same image to both eyes.

To build that pair of glasses, I bought two pairs of circularly polarized glasses from e-Bay (they are quite easy to find and go for a dollar or two) and broke them open to extract a left filter out of the first pair and a right filter out of the second pair. I then exchanged these filters and glued the frames back together. The result is two pairs of glasses, one of which will see only the right image, the other seeing the left image. In effect, my friend can now enjoy the same movie as the rest of her family in the same theater, except that to her and to her only it just looks like a plain old 2D movie. It’s just as comfortable as seeing the movie in a regular movie theater except for the weight of the glasses. No movement of the head affects the experience.

A small note on polarized sunglasses and why they wouldn’t work here. First, wearing sunglasses in a movie theater would further obscure even David Lynch’s Inland Empire. More importantly, polarized sunglasses use linear polarization because they are designed to eliminate specular reflection from the sun off water or ice and to eliminate part of the sunlight scattered by the atmosphere, both of which are linearly polarized.

Understanding polarization:

The RealD Cinema technology:

Note: feel free to build your own 2D glasses for your own personal use, but please contact me for any bigger-scale use of the idea.


My video setup

As I’m in vacation, I thought I’d make a post on something different but still quite geeky. I really like to see how people set-up their video systems: there isn’t just one way to do it right and I can’t think of two friends of mine who have something even remotely similar. So I’ll describe my setting and invite you to drop me a comment and describe yours. I’ll also tag a few friends and ask them to describe theirs. I’ll post links here.

TV reception

HD Homerun I almost stopped watching TV over the last few years. I certainly never, ever watch it live. But there is still a handful of shows that I still record in order to get them early and in HD. For that, I installed a simple HD antenna on my roof, that I pointed to the best Seattle relays using AntennaWeb. To receive the signal from the antenna, I use a HD Homerun, which is a great external double HDTV tuner that connects directly to your wired network. This makes it possible for all the computers on your network to show and record HDTV. It is of course perfectly compatible with Media Center.

Media hub

Zalman Media Center The machine where I store all my media (music, TV shows and movies) is a Windows 7 Media Center installed on a fancy Zalman HTPC case with a built-in touch screen. The touch screen is very useful to do stuff on the Media Center without turning on the TV. It would be even more useful if Media Center supported multiple monitors properly and could show the menus on one screen and the video on another. Maybe in a future version…

The Media Center has two hard drives for a total capacity of 1.5TB. It is a little too noisy to my taste and the Zalman software that regulates fan speed is a little clunky by it is a very well-built box that I like a lot nonetheless.

Sony DVD changer Attached to the Media Center is a 200 DVD VAIO jukebox that I hope to retire once I’m done transferring my DVD collection to MP4 using Handbrake (the one and only DVD transfer application that ever worked for me without adding a 1 second delay between image and sound). I hope to retire it because although the integration with Media Center is perfect, it is a very big object and it’s quite slow at loading DVDs.

The software that I installed on the Media Center is kept to a minimum.

On top of Media Center (which comes with Windows 7), I’ve installed enough codecs to be able to read pretty much any video file ever created (except for Quicktime or Real, those I just cannot tolerate).

Media Center keyboardI also have the Hulu desktop software, which unfortunately doesn’t integrate into the Media Center UI. Lame. About Hulu, I also have a license of PlayOn to stream Hulu and YouTube to the Xbox and PS3. Totally worth the $39.99.

Netflix streaming is built-in and integrated in Media Center so nothing to install there.

Finally, I have the Zune software installed to manage all the family’s Zunes and our Zune Pass subscription.

The only thing that the Media Center can’t play is HD-DVD (not a big problem anymore) and Blu-ray.

Gaming and secondary media player

Xbox 360 I’m a gamer, and I play primarily on the Xbox. I love the system and I’m addicted to achievements. But it’s also a more than capable media player that I prefer to use over the Media Center whenever I can because its interface is built for ten-foot operation from beginning to end, whereas the Media Center is a 10’ interface built on the Windows shell, which is a 3’ interface. It doesn’t leak most of the time, but when it occasionally does, it kinda sucks and you have to use the mouse or keyboard. No such thing ever happens with the Xbox.

HD-DVD The Xbox 360 has:

Blu-ray (and more gaming)

PlayStation 3 There are some movies that do deserve the HD treatment, and my Netflix subscription has the Blu-ray option. There are now very affordable Blu-ray players on the market, but the PS3 is pretty much guaranteed to always be updated to the latest spec, and there’s no doubt that it’ll have the processing power to follow them. Because of this and because I enjoy PS3 exclusives just as much as I enjoy Xbox exclusives, I opted to buy a PS3 rather than a dedicated Blu-ray player.

Logitech hardware patch for PS3 But one major design flaw of the PS3 for video playback is that it only supports Bluetooth remotes. I just can’t understand why they made that choice, beyond trying to look cute. The number of remotes I want in my living room is one. Not two. One. Sony’s failure to include a cheap IR receiver in the PS3 means you either need an extra remote (or a controller) that you’re only going to use with the PS3, or you need to work around the design flaw. I opted for the latter: Logitech has a hardware patch that receives conventional IR signals from my Harmony remote and translates them into Bluetooth signals. It’s not cheap, but it keeps the number of remotes to the right number (one, in case you weren’t paying attention).

Bringing it to the screen and speakers

Onkyo HDMI receiver All three devices I use for video (the Media Center, Xbox and PS3) output their signal in beautiful 1080p over HDMI. Unfortunately, my TV only has two HDMI inputs. This is why I opted for an Onkyo receiver that has HDMI inputs and outputs. The HDMI inputs only support the video signal, not the sound signal. Choosing one that does would have been more expensive, and all I had to do to work around the limitation was to pull an additional fiber optic cable for each device.


Logitech Harmony 880 As I’ve mentioned, only one remote is tolerated in the room. As far as I know, the only good choice today is one of the Logitech Harmony. What makes these remotes different is that they work by activity rather than by device. This means that when you’re watching a DVD, you don’t have to know whether the sound volume is being managed by the receiver or the Media Center, you just press the volume keys. The remote knows. It also knows how to turn on and off all the required devices for any given activity with the click of only one button. Finally, it’s very highly configurable. The one I own is the Harmony 880. It’s good enough and has a cradle to recharge the battery when not in use.

That’s it

And that’s it. So how does your video setup look like? Comments are open.

Brad Wilson's setup:

Ludovic Chabant's setup (Ludovic is the author of the excellent NLDD):