Culture

Forget the glasses--3D monitors ready now

Expect to see more opportunities for three-dimensional viewing show up on TVs, cell phones and beyond.

SAN FRANCISCO--Has 3D's time arrived?

Several display companies are concocting, and in some cases already selling, monitors and other components that provide a simulated 3D viewing experience. Many of these new products don't require glasses.

Stand in front of a Philips 3D monitor, and animated characters throw rose petals or dice at you; the first time you see it, you startle and jolt upward slightly. A film trailer shown on the monitors seems to have more depth than a standard 2D movie.

The Dutch electronics giant has tested the technology in the labs with consumers and noted that a person's galvanic skin response--a change in the skin's ability to conduct electricity, caused by an emotional stimulus, such as fright--rises with 3D viewing.

"It is clearly a more immersive experience," Jos Swillens, vice president and general manager of the 3D division at Philips, said during an interview at the conference here. "There is nothing hampering this from becoming a mainstream product."

While Philips currently sells monitors with its WOWxv technology only to resorts and malls for public information kiosks, it hopes to bring out 3D TVs in about two years. The company is currently talking with broadcasters and producers to produce 3D-optimized content; it is also negotiating with other TV manufacturers to license the technology for their own sets.

"I have spent a lot of time in the Far East in the last year," Swillens said.

3D monitors

While Philips is one of the farthest along, others are also working on their own ideas. Toshiba is showing off a prototype 3D monitor at the conference that doesn't require glasses.

Sanyo, meanwhile, has come up with a prototype glasses-less 3D monitor that can simultaneously provide two different TV programs--one for a person on the left and one on the right--according to Goro Hamagishi, a researcher at the company. With this technology, a person in the passenger seat of a car could watch a movie while the driver could observe a 3D map, complete with skyscrapers, churned up by a GPS service and thereby navigate by sight rather than address.

By contrast, Boulder, Colo.-based ColorLink says to forget trying to get rid of glasses. The company is working with arcade game manufacturers to create immersive 3D driving games, according to John Korah, product development engineer for the company.

ColorLink, which makes polarizers for big-screen TVs, is also getting feelers from the porn industry, he added, comically cocking an eyebrow.

Pixel to pixel: How it works
Three-dimensional monitors and TVs essentially rely on human gullibility. In typical monitors, the pixels are synchronized to send out a single image. In a 3D monitor, however, half the pixels are used to create one image, and the other half are used to create a similar, but slightly different one, said Korah. Stand too close or far away, and the images overlap and make the overall picture blurry.

But put on a pair of polarizing glasses, which block the right-eye image from hitting your left eye and vice versa, or stand in the sweet spot in front of a glasses-less 3D monitor, and your brain "sees" a 3D image. The right and left images stitch together in the brain in the same way right and left eye input would if the object happened to actually be there.

Alternatively, a monitor can consume all of the pixels for one image, and toggle between left and right images rapidly.

"With 3D, the effect gets bigger as the screen gets larger."
--Jos Swillens, president and general manager, Philips' 3D division

"If the switching speed is fast enough, our brains form a 3D image," said C.H. Chen, a graduate student at National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan who is working with AU Optronics on a 3D monitor for cell phones.

Additionally, virtually all 3D monitors can function as 2D monitors by having the computer resort to serving up unified images. On most, it takes the click of a mouse.

Technically, 3D is becoming feasible because of the high number of pixels in high-definition television. Researchers in corporate and university labs, meanwhile, have worked on ways to make the 3D effect possible without glasses and expand the size of the sweet spot.

The screens from Philips and Sanyo, for instance, contain an elaborate array of lenses in front of the pixel array. The lenses project the right and left images accurately toward the right and left eyes and thus eliminate the need for glasses that would block images for the other eye.

With Philips' 42-inch monitor, which came out last November and sells for $11,995, the effect works best when viewers sit about 4 meters away. With a 20-inch version of the monitor coming out in the third quarter, 3D effects start to kick in at about 20 centimeters.

To expand the sweet spot, the Philips monitor projects out eight different right/left pairs of images, so even if you sit toward the edge of the screen, or move around, you still get the effect. The company has also increased the depth of the optimal viewing area, so that not all viewers have to stand in the same vertical plane.

"With 3D, the effect gets bigger as the screen gets larger," Swillens said. The technology also works on both LCDs and plasma TVs. Achieving the full effect, however, also requires complex image processing, which can be tweaked for optimal 3D effects or a larger sweet spot.

In some early versions of 3D monitors currently on the market and produced by other vendors like SeeReal Technologies, the sweet spot is somewhat constrained: Viewers have to stand straight in front of the monitor about 2 feet away.

TV programs and games do not have to be rewritten to take advantage of the WOW technology, said Swillens. The monitor itself will 3D-ize some content itself. Still, it helps. Viewers seem to like a combination of out-of-screen and behind-screen effects. By working with content producers, 3D effects can be orchestrated.

"Some people get a headache. Some people like it for a long time," said Martin Hiddink, a scientist at Philips Research Labs.

Naturally, Philips is developing tools to port content to 3D. One of the early users could become sports broadcasters, the company said. A base of 3D TVs at home could also encourage more 3D movies.

ColorLink's Korah, though, says that the glasses-less don't fit well with the market. Games will likely be the main form of 3D content for a while, and viewers won't want to use 3D all the time.

"The cost of autostereoscopic is much more," he said.