2011 is the year when 3D gets personal. Whether or not the act of putting on glasses is putting-off consumers (European and US consumers trail the world in 3D excitement according to analysts at Nielsen), the recent CES in Las Vegas saw a raft of unexpected announcements, demos and prototypes of glasses-free 3D gadgets.
With a few stunning exceptions - Toshiba's 56-inch and 65-inch LCD TVs, to be precise - almost all were portable smallscreen devices such as smartphones, photo frames, camcorders and laptops (though strangely no tablets).
Lucy Edwards, marketing manager for Digital Cameras at Fujinon, believes that glasses-free 3D 'lenticular' (ie the lens is across the screen rather than in glasses) technology is currently best for gamers and photographers.
She says that the W3's 3.5-inch screen is, "best viewed straight-on due to the screen having a certain 'sweet spot' where the 3D effect is most pronounced, making the technology ideal for a camera or handheld games device.
"Human eyes are generally around 64mm apart, so in order to be able to shoot true, realistic 3D images, the W3 is equipped with two Fujinon lenses that are actually about 20% further apart - so as to maximise the impression of depth, while still producing natural-looking images."
Sony's immediate answer to the lack of 3D content is identical to Fujifilm's; make your own, and it's obvious that its aim is also a glasses-free future.
As well as professional 3D cameras, Sony used CES to launch a glasses-free 3D 'Bloggie' camcorder, while previewing a 10.1-inch portable 3D Blu-ray player, a VAIO laptop and perhaps the ultimate example of 'personal 3D' (though hardly glasses-free); a pair of 'headmount' 3D glasses with a 3D OLED screen for each eye, which seems destined for the PlayStation platform.
NO SPECS: From three new Sony Bloggie devices, the MHS-FS3 uses a glasses-free 3D screen
"2011 begins the next phase of our 3D strategy - the year in which 3D becomes personal," Sony's CEO Howard Stringer told a packed audience at CES.
"3D is far more than a science fiction gimmick to make special effects dominate the storyline and bedazzle the viewer, it simply mirrors the experience of reality itself," he said.
"We don't see the world around us in 2D, we see it in living 3D. As with all technology refinement and improvements will follow, with or without glasses, and viewers will become more enthusiastic."
As such, display manufacturers are queuing up to take advantage of the expected boom in 3D devices. Master Image, which makes a 3.1-inch screen already used in Japan by Hitachi's WOO 3D smartphone, was at the CES, while eLocity's 10-inch photo frame that auto-converts 2D pictures into 3D, told TechRadar that it intends to make glasses-free 3D gaming PCs and TVs this year.
Sharp demoed 3.8-inch and 10.6-inch 3D screens, while LG also contributed to the debate with a 4.3-inch glasses-free 3D display that features a resolution of 400x800 pixels.
FIT FOR A PHONE? Sharp's 3.8-inch LCD screen
"LG sees tremendous growth potential in the 3D mobile display market," said Dr. Jong-seok Park, president and CEO of LG Mobile Communications Company, at CES. "LG is looking forward to debuting this exciting new way to watch 3D movies or play games on your mobile phone." To us, that sounds like it's pretty close to market.
All of these glasses-free - or auto stereoscopic, to be precise - 3D gadgets essentially work the same way; an often transparent (to allow 2D watching, too) parallax barrier on the screen has a series of light-blocking slits that together send a different image to each eye. In essence it's a refined version of 3D stickers, cards and cereal packs from 20 years ago. And it has the same disadvantage: the viewer has to stay still.
In the deadzone
In fact, if you move your head even a tiny distance the entire 3D effect is ruined; you're watching from the 'deadzone'.
"An auto stereoscopic screen has a number of views across its screen - effectively nine different images that you see as you move you head across," Bill Foster, senior technology consultant at Futuresource Consulting, told TechRadar. "If you're not in one of those nine sweet spots you can potentially see a reverse 3D image."
Promising a 'deadzone-free' 3D experience is Toshiba, which surprised industry watchers by unveiling at CES a 15.6-inch auto stereoscopic 3D laptop. What's interesting about this is that it's all about 'personal 3D'; only the person sat in front of the screen gets a 3D image. Everyone else, even if they crowd around the laptop, can only see ghosting and flicker.
Crucially, the viewer can move their head around and shift their viewing position during playback and still see a 3D image - there are no 'deadzone' gaps between the sweetspots.
A Toshiba USA spokesman told TechRadar: "The laptop uses a webcam to recognise your face and it puts a virtual mask on you." Sure enough, an inset feed from the webcam alongside the 3D image reveals a live feed of me with a line around my eyes, nose and chin.
"It adjusts the light output based on tracking your eye position, but it doesn't always work if you get too close to the screen." During our demo the 3D effect was pretty resilient, especially in the foreground. However, the webcam tracking system got confused by the bright light from a camcorder behind us, interference and mistakes if I moved by head quickly, and I did see a double image in the left-hand side.
This prototype of 'two parallax' tech - as it's known - still needs a tweak or two, but is slated for sale later this year.
Toshiba, which prefers the term 'natural' 3D, appears to have the most glasses-free 3D gadgets in its arsenal. Also showing without glasses at CES were its previously announced 12-inch and 20-inch 3D TVs - only on sale in Japan - and the real deal; 56 and 65-inch LED 3D TVs that use Toshiba's powerful CEVO Engine - and don't require glasses.
TINY TELLY: Toshiba's 12-inch, 466x350 pixel 12GL1 auto stereoscopic 3D TV is already on sale in Japan for around £1,000
With those, pixilation is an issue; some of the pixels are being used to generate different views, though it's less of an issue with smallscreen devices - hence the big push. Besides, technology improvements are imminent. "We've now got nine views, but coming down the pike is 15 views," says Foster. "Though that will need more processing and a meaty chip."
Despite there being some misgivings about the quality of the technology, Toshiba, Sony, LG and the rest clearly think there's a demand. Commercial realities are at play, too; sales of 2D cameras and camcorders have been in terminal decline since smartphones added cameras and video recording.
The advent of glasses-free 3D could give these dying devices a temporary shot in the arm, though expect the smartphone (all eyes on Mobile World Congress 2011) to once again consign them to the digital dustbin; we expect glasses-free 3D to be all about gaming gadgets for a year or so - cue the Nintendo 3DS - but it won't be long until everyone has a parallax in their pocket.
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