Will Glasses-Free 3D Appear on Your Smartphone Soon?

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Where Is the 3D Content?
Content could turn out to be king of 3D land — but unfortunately, there isn’t much of it available yet. Although Sharp hasn’t yet detailed any of its 3D phone intentions for the U.S. market, the company has announced both games and movies for its 3D phones in Japan.

3D games unveiled for Sharp’s Galapagos OO3SH and 005SH phones include Resident Evil; Mega-Man; Degeneration; Gold Knights; Ghosts ‘n Goblins; Mobile Powerful Pro Baseball 3D; and a rhythm game called Taiko no Tatsujin.

Also for Japan only, Hitachi has announced that its 3DS handheld game machine will get streaming TV, a type of content that doesn’t seem likely to be offered on these shores until high-bandwidth 4G networks become a lot more pervasive.

Grilli 3D is already offering free downloads of some 3D content for use with its Grilli. While the content is limited right now to demo images and animations, the company is talking with creators and distributors of comic books and movies, Giorgio said.

For its part, at CES is January, Spatial View intends to release a new app for use with 3DeeSlide in viewing videos and other 3D content downloaded from a 3DeeCentral Web site.

Parallax Barrier, Lenticular Lens, and Other 3D Screens
At a recent show in New York City called The 3D Experience, Richard Bower from Master Image 3D touted the benefits of his company’s glasses-free, autostereoscopic 3D viewer, which uses a type of technology known as parallax barrier.

Sharp is relying on a similar approach, drawn from in-house development, in its Android OS-enabled smartphones for Japan. Moreover, Casio Hitachi has adopted Sharp’s parallax barrier 3D screens for its forthcoming 3DS handheld game machine.

Glasses-free 3DTVs based on parallax barrier are currently pricey indeed. Yet due to the much smaller screen real estate and less complex 3D technology involved, a manufacturer can add a built-in parallax barrier screen to a smartphone for a total extra cost of only $10 to $15 per unit, according to industry estimates.

Essentially, parallax barrier uses a layer of materials containing tiny, precise lines which block light from an image differently for each eye to produce something called a “sweet spot” above the image. At the sweet spot, the brain sees two slightly offset images, which it then fuses to create a composite giving the illusion of depth.

Parallax barrier, however, isn’t the only glasses-free 3D screen technology in use right now. For instance, Grilli 3D claims to have “evolved” beyond parallax barrier to a technology called “corrected, convergent barrier.” Consequently, unlike displays built on parallex barrier, the company’s Grillis allow more than one user to view 3D effects on a smartphone at the same time, according to Dwight Prouty, Grilli 3D’s manager/CTO.

“A ‘parallax barrier’ consists of a one-to-one relationship with the underlying pixel columns and ours has a one-to-many [relationship], with more barrier periods than pixels. This enables many viewing locations,” Prouty said in an e-mail.

The vertical lines are also subtly different in width and shaping than in “standard parallax,” for “optimal light transmission and multiple focus pools,” according to the CTO.

Spatial View uses an autostereoscopic “lenticular lens” technology. The slits in a barrier system work by “blocking the right eye from seeing the left image and blocking the left eye from seeing the right image,” said Spatial View’s Raemy. “Therefore, each eye is seeing the correct image, resulting in a perception of depth.”

In contrast, lenticular lens technology operates by “directing, or bending the light, through a series of lenses such that the left eye gets the left image and the right eye gets the right image, [also] resulting in the perception of depth.”

Spatial View acknowledges that its 3DeeSlide add-on only allows one user at a time to gaze at 3D images on a phone. Yet on the other hand, Raemy maintained, 3DeeSlide can be “easily applied to or removed from” a traditional 2D screen for transitioning to and from 3D content.

Apple Criticizes ‘Parallax Barrier,’ Too
Apple’s autostereoscopic 3D patent application from 2006, released this week, took issue with traditional parallax barrier technology on the basis of costs and some other grounds, including lack of support for simultaneous viewing by multiple users, along with the need for the user to remain “stationery.”

It doesn’t seem at all certain, though, that issues around the need to remain stationery — and the inability to share 3D images with other users — would pose the same dilemmas on smartphones as on HDTVs, for instance.

Users might well want to be able to watch a 3D program on an HDTV uninterruptedly while shifting from a couch to a living room chair. The entire family might want to see the same show, but from different viewing angles based on where people are sitting. Smartphones, though, are typically single-user devices, looked at from directly above.

In any event, Apple’s now patented technology calls for images to be projected on to a reflective surface, and then bounced back to the user’s left eye and their right eye via components such as “a programmable mirror with a programmable deflection angle” and “apparatus for determining the left and right locations of at least one observer in proximity with the projection screen.”

Progress in 3D Middleware and Navigation
Virtually all purveyors of commercial 3D screen technology claim to have tooled their products to overcome alignment issues, along with the reductions in screen brightness and resolution that might otherwise go hand-in-hand with putting an extra layer of plastic on an LCD.

Third-party vendors, though, have pinpointed other areas that they think could stand improvement. Scaleform, for example, has been working on middleware and a UI toolkit designed for producing 3D apps that work “naturally” in an autostereoscopic environment.

Another player, Creative Consultants, has produced 3D mouse technology which delivers “haptic feedback” in efforts to give you control over all three 3D axes — meaning the z axis, too, not just the x and the y — when navigating the screen.

The Bottom Line?
Although both the technology and the content are coming along, it’s too early to tell yet whether 3D smartphones will actually ship in the U.S. next year, and if so, how many models will be out there for the choosing.

Based on its research, however, In-Stat is forecasting that the 3D mobile market won’t really be “poised for takeoff” until 2012, due mostly to “a lack of mobile 3D content and the increase in technology costs necessary to incorporate 3D into mobile devices.”

Yet regardless of availability levels for 3D phones next year, 2011 could be a good year for smartphone users to starting exploring 3D by playing around with add-on products — particularly if vendors begin to support more 2D phones than just the iPhone.


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