With 3D TVs and 3D cameras already crowding store shelves this year, could 2011 turn into the year of the 3D smartphone? Maybe or maybe not.
Hitachi, Sharp, and a couple of India-based start-ups have already created "glasses-free" 3D phones for use in other countries. Sharp has pointed to plans for U.S. release next year. Meanwhile, at least two companies are now selling add-on products in the U.S. for giving 3D effects to 2D iPhones.
In a report issued just last week, analyst firm In-Stat Research predicted that the "next likely application for 3D technology is in mobile devices," projecting shipments of 60 million 3D phones and other mobile gadgets by 2014.
In fact, all major smartphone makers are now in the process of evaluating 3D phone technology, according to Richard Bower, president and COO of Master Image 3D, a company that makes a 3D screen already incorporated into Casio Hitachi's Wooo H001 phone.
Lots of Research and Development in Progress
Beyond the 3D phones developed by Hitachi and Sharp for the Japanese market, and similar devices from Spice and Zen in India, Acer recently floated the idea of stepping into the 3D phone and tablet arenas.
HTC is also now rumored to be planning a move. The reports about HTC are based largely on a recent job posting for the firm's R&D Center in Research Triangle Park, NC stipulating that applicants offer "familiarity with 3D display and imaging technologies." However, HTC also demo'd a 3D Android OS smartphone prototype earlier this year at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain.
Also last week, Apple received a patent on a glasses-free 3D technology. Apple originally filed an application for the patent back in 2006, however, and it's unclear whether the company plans to really use this technology in phones -- or in other products, for that matter.
Meanwhile, temporary solutions for 3D viewing on mobile devices are already available in the U.S. from start-ups Spatial View and Grilli 3D. More specifically, on Black Friday, Grilli 3D released "Grilli," a new plastic film "utility" for adding 3D to the iPhone and other Apple gadgets, including the iPad, iPod Touch, and iPad.
3D Technology and Content Now Emerging
Generally speaking, users have already shown themselves to be less than thrilled over the prospect of wearing special glasses for viewing 3D content. The thought of donning 3D specs while simultaneously juggling a mobile device seems particularly ludicrous. Vendors, though, are now starting to sidestep this problem through the development of autostereoscopic technologies.
"Autostereoscopy is any method of displaying stereoscopic images without the need for special headgear or glasses," explained Beat Raemy, CEO of Spatial View.
With more powerful mobile processors also here, the technology for viewing 3D images on smartphones is starting to fall into place. Still, it remains to be seen how many 3D smartphones will make it to market next year, and whether U.S. consumers -- in 2011, at least -- will find 3D compelling enough to be worth the extra money and bother.
Even 2D images can protrude from the screen slightly when viewed on a 3D display. But just about all 3D practitioners agree that the technology works much better with images expressly designed to be seen in 3D. While the first games, movies, and 3D still shots are starting to trickle out, choices are still very limited, to put it mildly.
Meanwhile, 3D screen vendors are currently duking it out over which autostereoscopic technologies produce the best glasses-free results on smartphones. Other companies are working on middleware and mouse technologies that could soon make 3D viewing and navigation seem less other-worldly.
First Steps into a Larger World
Hitachi is the best-known company to introduce a 3D smartphone so far. Released in Japan in a limited edition during the spring of 2009, the Wooo features a built-in switch for toggling from 2D into 3D mode on the 3.1-inch WVGA screen when the users want to run 3D fare.
Despite its stated plans to ship 3D smartphones in the U.S. next year, Sharp hasn't even released its Android OS-enabled phones in Japan yet. However, Softbank Mobile Corp. is slated to start carrying Sharp's 3D-capable Galapagos OO3SH in December, with the hard QWERTY keyboard-enabled 005SH expected to follow in February. Also this winter, NTT Docomo is scheduled to release Sharp's Lynx 3D phone.
Two Indian-based starts-up named Spice and Zen have rolled out smartphones with 3D screens and 3D user interfaces.
3D Add-ons Are Budget-Friendlier
While 3D phones now come at a premium cost, prices are coming down fast. Sharp's phones for Japan are expected to go for anywhere from around US $370 to $433, far less than the asking price of US $510 on the Hitachi Wooo.
Yet the cost is even less for a piece of 3D add-on hardware available in the U.S. today for use with an existing phone.
Spatial View, one of the first companies to pioneer in this area, currently charges only $10 for a 3DeeSlide, available through the company's Web site for either iPhone or iPod touch. This a slide-on lens holder containing a 3D lens.
A Grilli from Grilli 3D is a film placed directly on the LCD. It sells for only $14.95 for an iPhone/iPod Touch version or $29.99 for an iPad edition. Bill Giorgio, the company's general manager, asserted that the Grilli filter is simple to use, and that it doubles as a screen protector.
The two add-ons are still offered for Apple gadgets only, although both companies say they plan to start supporting non-Apple mobile hardware down the road.
Part 2 of this report explores the topics of 3D content and types of 3D technologies
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