3D D2

Direct Prints that Pop

Ken Hope is marketing operations manager for AnaJet Inc, a manufacturer of direct-to-garment printers, RIP programs and related software.

Three-dimensional technology is not a new fad by any means. In past years, it appeared in small bursts then faded away, only to resurface time and again. The technology can be traced back to the beginning of photography. The stereoscope, a device for viewing photographs which gave the illusion of depth, was invented in the mid-1800s; the Kinematoscope, a stereo animation camera, came out of the U.S. shortly thereafter and, toward the turn of the century, the first anaglyph movie—which utilizes 3D glasses with two different color lenses—was produced.

Producing eye-catching, vibrant 3D images is as simple as creating designs using the proper color palette to suit the background. No special software is needed, just an understanding of advanced color depth theory for use with C3D glasses. (T-shirt sample courtesy Anajet)

The film industry continued to drive the development of 3D technology for several years to follow with the invention of Space-Vision, Stereovision, polarized glasses and the introduction of the IMAX theater. Add to this the development of sophisticated, enhanced software development for gamers and stereolithography, it doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. CEO and executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center, David Wertheimer predicts better experiences are made possible “…with the continued development in digital technology, 3D of today is fundamentally different than ever before and bound to be a staple of the entertainment industry.” True to its resurfacing nature, here we are again. 

Changes in 3D viewing technology

As mentioned previously, the introduction of anaglyph technology uses a special pair of 3D glasses to generate a true 3D effect. This process works very well when viewed on a backlit monitor or television set. However, the colors used to achieve this—red and cyan—do not necessarily reproduce well in the CMYK digital-printing world. In a quick revisit to the principles of CMYK subtractive color print process versus the RGB additive color process, it’s easy to see why this does not work well for digital garment printing.

Additionally, the process of color shifting the red and cyan channels to produce the 3D effect does not lend itself to an attractive finished T-shirt when viewed without 3D glasses. Few will argue that a red, cyan and gray scale image make for an attractive graphic design.

Using direct printing technology for producing 3D images adds a new dimension to embellished apparel. Movie houses, theme parks, night clubs and universities have all embraced 3D technology in one way or another. (Images courtesy the author)

However, there is a way to create 3D prints without the red and blue special lenses. What makes this technology so different from other dimensional viewing technology is that it is ideally suited for printed media and promotional-print media. While a special pair of glasses is still required to view a print in 3D, unlike traditional anaglyph prints, the C3D glasses use what appear to be clear lenses, not color-filtered lenses. 

Though any colored image will have some level of 3D depth when viewed with the C3D glasses, not all graphics are created equal for proper 3D viewing. The true magic comes in the simplistic understanding of how to properly prepare a graphic print for viewing with C3D glasses.

When thinking in terms of spot-color design, these new glasses work by bringing anything red forward while anything dark blue or black appears in the distant background. The remainder of the colors will appear at different depths or layers depending on their relationship to red and blue. Orange, yellow and white appear in the foreground-to-middle dimension while light blue, green and purple show up in the middle- to more distant-space.

With this simple understanding, a good imagination and a minimal amount of time, simple spot-color digital direct designs can come to 3D life. Not only are you able to deliver a vibrant, full-color design that can stand alone as a quality direct print, but adding a pair of C3D glasses to the mix brings the print to a whole other dimension.

Understanding C3D color depth

Although applying basic RGB colors to spot-color designs will result in “floating” different elements of the graphic in a 3D space when viewed with C3D glasses, the true advantage to direct-to-garment printing is its ability to directly print gradient designs with ease. An in-depth understanding of correctly encoding the third dimension of depth into an image and its relationship to the background color is required.

The most commonly-used color palette for optimal C3D color depth is RGB on a black background. This palette closely mimics the coloring of natural scenes. Foreground objects are colored red, background objects are blue and the middle-space objects vary according to a rainbow spectrum from red to blue. The use of gradient blends will greatly help to achieve a true 3D depth perception.

While direct printing of 3D images on black shirts will achieve the greatest depth, the inverse of the RGB color palette will work well for printing on white shirts. The color palette used for white backgrounds is CMY. Understandably, incorporating cyan, magenta and yellow as the primary colors in your design, may not have as much of a striking contrast as a stand-alone print versus RGB on black shirts, but still works with C3D glasses when applied correctly. When using the CMY color palette, foreground objects are cyan, background objects are yellow and the middle-space objects are purple, magenta and orange respectively.

RGB and CMY are not the only available color palette options. There is one other that works well for black shirt printing, known as the patriot palette. In this color palette, red, white and blue become the primary colors of choice. Similar to RGB, red objects are placed in the foreground, while white objects become the middle ground and blue objects will be the furthest away. However, keep in mind that the inverse of this palette, CKY (cyan, black and yellow) does not create an effective C3D image against a white background.

The real benefit in the ease of producing 3D prints with direct-to-substrate printers is that no special software is required; only utilizing and combining the understanding of RGB, CMY and RWB color palettes. Additionally, wearing the C3D glasses and using lots of imagination in the design process can make the process develop that much quicker.