Glasses-Free 3D: Sooner Than You Think?

Glasses-free 3D TVs (also known as "autostereoscopic TVs") are practically the flying cars of CES--everyone wants them, but they never seem to make it to market. Here's a rundown on the state of glasses-free 3D TV, and a list of the companies to look out for over the next year.

Glasses-Free 3D: The Background

Ask your Average Joe consumer when they plan on buying a 3D TV, and the answer is typically something like "3D? Yeah, right. Not until they lose those dumb glasses." Ask your friendly neighborhood TV manufacturer when glasses-free 3D TVs will hit the market, and the answer is typically "Five to ten years", which in tech-speak translates to "I have no idea". That doesn't stop TV manufacturers from showing off prototype glasses-free 3D TVs, mind you--they just never seem to be anywhere close to market.

The reason it's so hard to implement is because the whole principle of a 3D image depends on your eyes seeing two slightly different images. The easiest way to do this is to wear a set of glasses that can use the lenses to change or filter the image slightly--active shutter glasses do this by dimming each lens in rapid succession, while polarized 3D filters use the glasses to show each eye a different image by filtering the light that each eye can see. If you want to do this without glasses, you'll need a specially designed (read: expensive) TV panel, and even the prototypes we've seen can't do this without severely restricting the effect to a fixed distance and angle, meaning that only two or three people at best could get a 3D image.

Glasses-Free From The Big Boys

Several of the major TV manufacturers had prototype glasses-free 3D TVs on the show floor: LG had a few portable displays, Sony had a portable Blu-ray player as well as two full-sized HDTVs (47-inch and 55-inch), and Toshiba had a full-sized 65-inch HDTV as well as a handful of portable Blu-ray players and a laptop.

Of course, none of these TV manufacturers gave even the slightest inkling that they'd be releasing a commercially available model, even for business-oriented digital signage purposes. That's because they're simply not ready.

In addition to the limited viewing range and angle problems mentioned above, the unfortunate fact is that the actual depth of the 3D effect in these autostereoscopic TVs is, frankly, disappointing. It's far too subtle to be exciting, and I often found myself looking for the 3D effect in an image or a clip when I should have been blown away.

In Video: Toshiba's 65-inch Glasses-Free 3D TV In Action

For comparison, I was impressed the first time I saw 3D in a movie theater. Then I saw 3D in a home HDTV and was a little bit let down--sure, it was 3D, but the image itself simply wasn't deep enough to make me feel wowed (and it certainly wasn't good enough for me to want to shell out the extra $600 or so that it would have cost to deck my home theater setup out for 3D).

Once I was over the novelty of not having to wear glasses, I quickly realized that the glasses-free 3D TVs somehow manage to make the glasses-required 3D TVs look good. 3D simply isn't fun if you're straining to pick out the 3D effect in each scene or still image, and if you paid a few thousand dollars for a 3D TV that had less depth than a hologram baseball card, it'd be even less fun.

Here Comes A New Challenger

The most interesting take on glasses-free 3D wasn't center stage from Sony or Toshiba. Instead, it came from iPONT, a Hungarian startup buried in the South Hall's Home Theater ghetto. iPONT specializes in designing 3D content for digital signage playback, but they had a prototype glasses-free 3D setup that looked really, really good.

In Video: iPONT's 65-inch Glasses-Free 3D TV

The iPONT setup consisted of a 65-inch autostereoscopic 3D display by Tridelity which hooked into a mysterious device iPONT simply called their "3D TV Box". Unlike the other glasses-free 3D TVs shown at CES, they used clips from YouTube 3D coming from an attached PC. Mind you, these were clips designed for normal glasses-3D TVs sets--the 3D TV Box converted that video signal into a format that the autostereoscopic panel could handle.

The results were comparatively breathtaking. While the viewable positions were just as limited as its fellow TVs from Sony and Toshiba, the actual depth of the 3D images was just as good as the 3D TVs that are out on the market right now. Interestingly enough, they actually managed to do that in a brightly-lit convention center hall, while everyone else's 3D TVs were carefully shrouded in a pitch-black demo room. Whether they used smoke and mirrors or animal sacrifice to pull it off, I don't know, but the results were impressive indeed.

iPONT CTO Andor Pasztor also seemed optimistic about their technology finding a place in the consumer market, maintaining that glasses-free 3D's prohibitive cost was strictly due to a lack of production volume, and not the process of manufacturing an autostereoscopic 3D panel itself. What's more, their proprietary technology--the 3D TV Box--was built entirely with off-the-shelf PC parts, except for one component that is a bit more specialized (but still commercially available). Of course, iPONT is a startup actively looking for partners, so you might want to take their claims of commercial viability with a grain of salt, but compared to the general message coming from Sony and Toshiba ("Not yet") or Samsung ("No thanks"), it gives this HDTV fan hope for the future of 3D.

Check out PCWorld's complete coverage of CES 2011.

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