Sharp's 3D monitors: Look, no glasses

The consumer-electronics giant plans to sell notebooks and flat-screen LCD monitors that let people see 3D images without the use of special glasses or software.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Consumer-electronics giant Sharp next year plans to sell notebooks and flat-screen LCD monitors that can show three-dimensional images.

The monitors will let people see high-resolution 3D images or run 3D programs without using special glasses or additional software. For example, bodies and bullets appear to fly all over the place in a version of the popular game "Quake" that has been adjusted to work on Sharp's 3D monitors.

The technology also will be aimed at businesses, said Greg Nakagawa, senior vice president of Sharp Systems of America. General Motors has discussed experimenting with the technology in its modeling and design department. Medical imaging companies and e-commerce sites also are potential customers.

"I'm sure there will be a notebook product and an LCD monitor as well" toward the end of 2003, he said.

Bringing 3D viewing to the computing world has been a longtime goal. Although several companies have come out with Web browser software and other technology to make images appear to pop off the screen, the Web largely remains a two-dimensional world. To most people, 3D still means paper glasses with red and blue lenses or the hologram image of Princess Leia in "Star Wars."

"It is still in its infancy in many ways," said Rhoda Alexander, an analyst with iSuppli/Stanford Resources. "There is a definite interest in the gaming market. There are some medical applications that like 3D, but precision there is important."

The picture, though, will likely begin to change in 2003. A 3D consortium--which includes Toshiba, Sony, Olympus, Kodak and Microsoft among its founding members--was recently established to hammer out standards for hardware manufacturing and software development. Such a move is typically a prelude to greater commercial adoption. The first meeting of the group, known as the 3D Consortium, took place earlier this month.

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Manufacturers are also working to smooth out potential resistance from developers or consumers. Turning traditional 2D "Quake" into a 3D program took only a day, Nakagawa said. Sharp also will let consumers turn off the 3D functionality.

Enhancing displays is at the core of the Japanese giant's strategy. Sharp, which reported a $557 million profit in fiscal 2002, is one of the leaders in the market for TFT displays, the glass with embedded electronics that comprises LCD monitors, and it has a major presence in the LCD monitor market in Europe and Japan.

More interesting uses of screens can directly improve the bottom line. At Comdex, for instance, Sharp showed off a new version of its Muramasa notebook, which weighs just over two pounds. Earlier this year, the company showed off an LCD panel with an embedded Zilog microprocessor. Sharp envisions a time when complete computers will be embedded into monitors, Nakagawa said.

Toshiba also is working on a 3D monitor, according to sources.

3D sandwich
Sharp's 3D monitor can be thought of as a TFT sandwich. The monitor contains two TFT panels separated by a parallax barrier, which directs pixel images to two separate regions so that each eye receives a slightly different image.

In the end, the brain formulates the signals so that the image appears to be a three-dimensional object, Nakagawa said.

Sharp has begun to sell cell phones in Japan for the NTT DoCoMo network that contain a scaled-down version of its 3D technology. The phone also comes with a camera that can display 3D photos.

The company has recently begun to show off prototypes of its larger 15-inch screen and a 3D notebook at trade shows and meetings.

More work remains to be done, however, to perfect the screens. For example, the 3D images are best viewed from 40 centimeters away, Sharp representatives said. Sitting closer or further away results in seeing two overlapping images. Faint vertical lines, a common feature of parallax visual systems, are also visible at any distance.