It’s been over two years since the rollout of the new generation of 3D home theater, yet 3D fans still suffer a relative lack of content to play on their 3D HDTVs and projectors. New Blu-ray 3D releases seem to trickle out at a frustratingly slow pace, and broadcast 3D content is erratic at best. Looking for something to watch, some viewers will even settle for converting 2D material to 3D. To that end, many 3D displays and Blu-ray players now offer 2D-to-3D conversion functions. Unfortunately, not all do, and many of these features produce really lousy quality 3D images. Hoping to improve that situation, several companies now offer real-time 2D-to-3D outboard conversion boxes. Perhaps the most promising of these is the VEFXi 3D-Bee. The company was gracious enough to send a review sample recently, which allowed me the opportunity to put the 3D-Bee through its paces.
VEFXi currently offers three different versions of the 3D-Bee, called the Home, Platinum or Premium models. See the company’s web site for a list of the feature differences. Most interested viewers will probably want to go for either the $399 Home or $499 Platinum options. Both of these support any 3D display that can accept a side-by-side 3D signal at either 720p or 1080p resolution. The Home model has only two depth settings. The Platinum model has more depth settings, and can also support certain displays that will accept a 720p 120Hz frame-sequential signal, which is rare in TVs and mostly applies to 720p 3D projectors.
The $949 Professional model is designed for users who synchronize two 3D projectors with polarizing filters and a silver screen. I expect that this will only apply to a small minority of viewers.
At the time VEFXi sent me a review sample, the company had different names for its models. The unit I received was called the “Trainer.” Its feature set seems to align with the Platinum model.
The 3D-Bee itself is an almost shockingly small and lightweight box. It has four HDMI inputs and one output. Once powered on, the device is set by default to pass through any 2D standard-definition or high-definition signal it receives up to 1080p24 and 1080p60. You have to turn on the 3D conversion manually with the included remote control. However, note that the 3D-Bee will not pass through or process native Blu-ray 3D signals. If you have a Blu-ray 3D player and are hoping to convert 2D signals from that machine, you’ll need to set up a separate connectivity path that bypasses the Bee when playing genuine Blu-ray 3D discs.
Every time I turned on the 3D-Bee, I was forced to acknowledge and accept a licensing agreement that appeared on my screen. I’m not sure if this was a function of the review sample or occurs on regular retail units as well. It got to be frustrating.
Also annoying are the on-screen icons that appear whenever you change settings. The symbols that indicate the different depth settings were confusing to me at first, and the icons linger on screen for a really long time. This is especially problematic since the icons are not rendered in 3D, and will only appear in one side of your 3D glasses.
Neither of my 3D displays will accept a 720p frame-sequential signal, so I had to use the 1080p side-by-side format. Unfortunately, my JVC projector doesn’t handle side-by-side 3D very well. It suffers severe crosstalk artifacts in this mode. This forced me to conduct all testing on my Vizio passive 3D TV instead, which wasn’t my preference. Because a passive 3D set already halves the vertical resolution of a 3D image, feeding it a side-by-side 3D signal (which halves the horizontal resolution) means that I downconverted every 1080p Blu-ray I watched to 540p resolution. If VEFXi ever releases a new model that can convert 2D content to the 1080p frame-packed format used on Blu-ray 3D discs, I’d be interested to give that another test. In the meantime, the comments I’ve written below will focus specifically on the 3D depth effect created by the 3D-Bee unit, not on other attributes of picture quality.
When converting Blu-ray video to 3D, I found that the picture would break into tearing artifacts if I set the Blu-ray player for 1080p24 resolution. This issue went away if I turned off 24 fps output and transmitted 1080p60 instead. I’m not sure if that was the fault of the 3D-Bee or of my Vizio TV (which works fine with regular 2D or 3D signals at 1080p24 resolution, but has never needed to display side-by-side 3D at 1080p24 for anything else).
The 3D-Bee Home’s depth adjustments can be set in either of two directions, called Z– or Z+. The idea is that Z– emphasizes depth behind the screen, while Z+ emphasizes pop-out in front of the screen. I’ll get into how well each of these works momentarily. The Trainer model I used (and thus the Platinum) adds further “strength” settings that boost the effects in either direction. In the negative range, you can choose from Z– to Z– – –. Likewise, the positive range goes from Z+ to Z+++.
In my testing, I found all of the “+” settings effectively unusable. Rather than create what we might think of as “pop-out” effects from the screen, they all made the screen itself appear bowed outward. The stronger the setting, the worse it looked.
The negative range was much more useful. I had trouble deciding between the first two settings. The strongest setting, Z– – –, had a very exaggerated appearance that was hard on the eyes and created bad crosstalk artifacts on my screen. I avoided that one.
In general, the primary Z– setting creates the least unwanted crosstalk artifacts, but also has only a modest 3D depth effect. In my opinion, the middle setting of Z– – often generates a more satisfying sense of depth, but one that can sometimes appear too exaggerated, and often causes crosstalk at the sides of the screen. I wound up alternating between these two depending on the content I watched. I fear that I’d find the Home model with only one “strength” setting in each direction too limited.
Before I get into specific examples of what I tested, let me describe two common examples of problematic imagery that can easily trip up the Bee’s 3D conversion.
The first is what I call the “Billboard Effect.” I named it this because I first noticed the issue while watching a scene in Pixar’s ‘Cars 2’ where the characters were stopped on the side of a road in front of a billboard. In a scene like that, you and I know that the picture on the billboard should be a flat 2D image. However, the real-time conversion algorithm in the 3D-Bee cannot always distinguish between images that should have depth and images that shouldn’t. Therefore, when processing this scene, the Bee gave the artwork in the billboard inappropriate depth effects that looked weird and silly. This also happened in similar situations such as the United Federation of Planets logo painted on the floor of Starfleet Headquarters in ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’.
‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ also provides another good example of content that can easily confuse the Bee. Early scenes in the film take place at a space station in orbit and at the Space Dock launching bay, both of which were photographed with very intricate models. The complex geometrical detail in the images threw the Bee for a loop. It couldn’t decide which parts of the picture should be pulled forward and which should be pushed back, or how far in either direction. The result was a very exaggerated and distorted 3D picture where some parts of the frame appeared too close, while items immediately next to them looked too far away, and sometimes the picture would distractingly fluctuate as the Bee’s algorithm tried to make repeated adjustments in real-time. This was perhaps a worst case scenario for the 3D-Bee.
3D Conversion Results
I did the majority of my testing from Blu-ray discs. In choosing what to watch, I tried to pick movie scenes that I thought would have a good chance of looking impressive in 3D. Unfortunately, what I discovered was that there’s absolutely no predicting what will convert well and what won’t. It’s a total crapshoot. Here’s what I looked at:
‘Cars‘ – This was by far the best demo of the 3D-Bee. The conversion to 3D was essentially flawless. It was indistinguishable from native 3D (and ironically converted much better than the sequel). The opening race scene of the movie may be the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen. If everything the 3D-Bee converted could look this good, I’d gladly buy one today. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
‘Cars 2‘ – I have no idea why ‘Cars’ would convert so well, yet ‘Cars 2’ didn’t. Both films have a similar visual design. I’m not saying that the 3D-Bee did a bad job with ‘Cars 2’, but it wasn’t nearly as impressive as the previous movie. 3D depth was pretty mediocre, and the picture suffered instances of the aforementioned Billboard Effect and complex detail tripping up the algorithm. I compared this movie’s native 3D version to the Bee’s conversion from 2D, and the native version offered a significant improvement.
‘Drive Angry‘ – This is another one where I compared the native 3D version to the conversion. While the native 3D was certainly better and more realistically three-dimensional, the conversion was reasonably decent on its own.
‘Piranha‘ – Here’s an interesting case where even the “native” 3D edition was a studio post-conversion. The 3D-Bee’s real-time attempt isn’t bad. I’d rate it about 60% the quality of the Blu-ray 3D disc.
‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture‘ – I’ve already described the problems I saw with the space station and the Federation logo. The conversion in other respects was pretty uneven. I expected outer space shots of the Enterprise to look fantastic in 3D, but they were disappointingly flat. The conversion seemed most effective in indoor scenes where characters stood in front of walls for perspective.
‘Star Trek II‘ – This one was underwhelming all around. The conversion seemed to work best on bright images, but even those weren’t worth the effort.
‘Star Trek ‘ – The 3D-Bee had no effect on this movie at all, at any setting. Every shot of the movie was flat 2D with no sense of a depth effect being created.
‘Starship Troopers‘ – Likewise, this movie was entirely 2D. The Bee didn’t make a dent in it at all.
‘A Bug’s Life‘ – A decent conversion, but not a tremendous amount of depth.
‘The Incredibles‘ – This was pretty flat for the most part, though scenes on the villain’s island conveyed a nice sense of layering among the jungle foliage.
‘Inception‘ – This conversion was very uneven. I was looking forward to watching the zero-gravity hallway fight in 3D, but the Bee didn’t add a lot of depth there. However, the exploding café earlier in the movie looked fantastic, with tons of debris bursting all through the frame at various depth layers. The folding-street scene also came across pretty well in 3D.
‘Alien‘ – The opening credits of this movie appeared nicely layered in front of the background. Depth elsewhere was good, though mostly subtle.
‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon‘ – I watched this disc before the native 3D edition was released. I felt that the conversion was OK, but visual errors were common. The freeway chase was fairly impressive. By the time the native 3D disc was eventually released, I found the depth effects in that a lot more aggressive and engaging all around than the conversion.
‘The Matrix‘ – Disappointing. Trinity’s famous “bullet time” jump-kick at the beginning of the movie is far too dark a scene for the Bee to create any usable sense of depth. Neo’s kung-fu training with Morpheus was underwhelming. I expected the lobby shoot-out to have a similar sense of debris popping all around the picture as the café explosion in ‘Inception’, but it wasn’t nearly as impressive.
‘Avatar‘ – The most famous 3D movie of all time was only so-so when converted from 2D. While I still don’t have a copy of the native 3D disc for this (damn Panasonic exclusivity!), the “Collector’s Edition” Blu-ray does include a copy of the movie’s trailer in 3D. I’d say that the 2D conversion to 3D was about 30% the quality of that trailer. Nothing stood out to me as “bad” here, but nothing really registered as better than “OK” either. Visual highlights like the hike to the floating mountains or the banshee riding scene had only a modest sense of depth.
With the exception of ‘Cars’ and the couple of discs that seemed to have no 3D processing at all, almost everything I watched suffered from at least some visual errors in random scenes. The degree to which these were distracting varied from mild and brief to severe and prolonged.
In between movies, I also tested a variety of TV content. The results there were extremely erratic. The noisy nature of the cable broadcast signal may have confused the Bee. The quality was so scattershot that I eventually decided not to bother converting TV shows anymore.
Finally, I ran a few videogames through the conversion box. The conversion on the racing game ‘MotorStorm Apocalypse’ was extremely impressive, so much so that I could hardly tell the difference between the conversion and the native 3D mode. At various times in the game, your car will drive through puddles and splash water on the virtual camera. The Bee even did a good job of rendering that effect so that the splashes remained in the foreground while images behind them receded into the background.
The First-Person Shooter ‘Killzone 3’ came next. The conversion on that was fairly satisfying on its own, though the image layering wasn’t nearly as defined as the game’s native 3D mode. On the other hand, it also seemed to suffer less 3D crosstalk. ‘BioShock’ (which doesn’t have a native 3D option) barely registered any depth at all, so it seems that the 3D-Bee does not treat all FPS games equally.
I also tried a couple of third-person games, such as ‘Lego Star Wars’, but found the perspective very disorienting. I didn’t enjoy these as much as first-person games.
A conversion box such as the 3D-Bee will add some processing delay to the image. This may be an issue for games that rely on lightning-fast reflexes. I didn’t notice too much of a problem with this, but I’m also not much of a gamer and I don’t think that any of the titles I played required such fast response time.
In reviewing this unit, I have to set aside the philosophical question of whether it’s really a good idea to convert 2D content into 3D in the first place. We’ll just assume that this is a desirable feature for some users. For my own part, I think it can be fun, though I would never want my first experience watching a particular movie to be in a form that wasn’t intended by its creators. My feelings in regard to videogames are more flexible. Essentially, I think a 3D conversion box is a neat toy.
My only other experience with real-time 2D-to-3D conversion came from a Panasonic Blu-ray player that I tested for a short time. The feature was terrible in that device. It simply made the entire flat 2D picture look like it had been inset a few inches behind the TV frame, with no other depth processing within the image itself on anything I tested. Unfortunately, I’m not able to make a comparison with other 3D conversion devices. From what I’ve heard, Samsung’s implementation in its 3D TVs and Blu-ray players is better than Panasonic’s. How well that stacks up to the 3D-Bee, I can’t say.
The VEFXi 3D-Bee is a significant improvement over that Panasonic Blu-ray player. On some content, such as the ‘Cars’ Blu-ray or the ‘MotorStorm Apocalypse’ PS3 game, the 3D conversion looked simply incredible. The unit produced impressive results in certain sequences of other movies and games as well. However, I found the unpredictability of the results to be very frustrating. There’s simply no way to guess in advance whether given content will convert seamlessly into 3D, will suffer from distracting visual errors, or won’t seem to exhibit any 3D depth whatsoever. Of course, I tried to keep my expectations for what any real-time processor could do in this regard appropriately low. Even so, the fact that the unit is limited to the side-by-side 3D format and will not pass through native 3D signals made it problematic for my particular home theater system. Ultimately, I returned my test model and decided not to purchase a 3D-Bee for myself.