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MasterImage 3D's small step forward for glasses-free 3D

New technology aims to let phones and other pocketable devices display remarkably crisp, bright high-definition 3D images.

Whenever I get the chance to see a demo of anything relating to 3D technology, I brace myself for disappointment.

I assume the image is going to be fuzzy, grainy, or murky. I expect it to look even worse if I'm not staring at its precise sweet spot. I prepare myself to struggle with poorly-fitting 3D glasses. (Nobody seems to make ones designed for someone like me: I wear glasses anyhow, and have a seriously wide head.)

MasterImage 3D's prototype glasses-free 3D display.
MasterImage 3D's prototype glasses-free 3D display. Harry McCracken/CNET

But when I had the chance this week to get a sneak peek at 3D technology from a Hollywood-based company called MasterImage 3D, I was unexpectedly impressed. Executive Vice President and General Manager Roy Taylor showed me a prototype screen for smartphones and other pocket-sized devices. It displayed 3D video at crisp, colorful 720p resolution. When I looked at it from the wrong angle, the 3D effect disappeared, but the image simply looked flat, not horrible. And I didn't have to fiddle with glasses, because MasterImage 3D's technology doesn't require them.

The company calls its system cell matrix parallax barrier, and it's an alternative to the parallax-barrier technology technology used by Nintendo's 3DS gaming handheld and Sprint's EVO 3D phone. As with other versions, an LCD overlay uses barriers to direct light, so each of your eyes sees a different image, which your brain fuses into a single 3D picture. But MasterImage 3D says that its technology permits for larger gaps between the cells that make up the barriers, which permits a brighter image and eliminates the "crosstalk" effect which causes ghosting with other 3D systems. It can also work in both portrait and landscape orientations.

In the demo I saw, trailers for Captain America and How to Train Your Dragon had some of the best 3D effects I've seen on any size screen, with or without glasses. Some of the other samples weren't nearly as impressive, though: In some cases, that was because they involved 2D video that had been converted into 3D, Taylor told me.

In its current incarnation, MasterImage 3D's technology has a relatively narrow sweet spot and works best when the distance between the user and the screen is short; for these reasons, it's better suited to small displays used by one person than to laptops, TVs, and other bigger-screen, multiple-viewer devices. Among the applications the company is pursuing are phones, media players, gaming handhelds, and airplane seat-back entertainment systems. At next month's Consumer Electronics Show, it plans to demonstrate 7" and 10" versions of the phone-sized screen I saw.

Taylor says that the 720p screens should show up in devices by the fall of 2012, if not earlier. (An earlier version of the company's technology was used in a phone that Hitachi released in 2009 for the Japanese market.) He told me that he thinks 3D movies are the most obvious application--since Hollywood already has plenty of available content--but he also expects the technology to be used for games, e-books, and user interfaces.

The demo didn't wash away all of my 3D skepticism. Even in way-better-than-average form, it's still more of a gimmick than an aesthetic advancement. (At any size, there's a certain paper-doll theater effect,) Still, it's encouraging to see proof that 3D isn't inherently dismal. Taylor says that he believes that virtually all smartphones will have 3D-capable displays within a few years. I'll be intrigued to see if he's right--and if he is, whether his company's innovative technology plays a major role in making it happen.