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Leia 3D display creates a holographic effect fit for a princess (hands-on)

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An interactive demo of Leia allows you to rotate a 3D image of a real CAT scan by simply waving your hand. Rich Trenholm/CNET

BARCELONA -- For a while every technology company was determined to convince us 3D was the future, from cinema screens to smartphones. Most consumers were, however, less than enamoured with the glasses required to view 3D, and even less impressed with the so-called glasses-free 3D options on offer. The sassily named Leia wants to change that.

I checked out a demo of Leia's glasses-free 3D displays at Mobile World Congress, the annual trade show where manufacturers and other titans of the mobile industry gather to check out each others' wares. Leia wants to convince the world that its 3D technology could appear in every type of gadget from smartwatches to tablets, from in-car displays to shop signage. But does it work?

It's still at the early stages, but I was cautiously impressed. One of the problems with 3D displays is that you have to be slap-bang in front of the screen to enjoy the effect; just ask anyone who's been shunted into the side seats of a movie theatre or who's tried looking over their friend's shoulder at an LG 3D phone. But Leia seems to have worked out how to make the 3D effect stay three-dimensional from different angles as you move your head or tilt and move the screen.

Leia works by, in layman's terms, shining light through a standard LCD screen at different angles. Each of the viewer's eyes sees something slightly different, creating a 3D effect. Moving your head then reveals a slightly different image, giving you the impression that the elements of the image have physical dimensions as they pop from the background. It still looks more like looking through a window at a physical object, however, with the animated elements appearing to float behind the screen rather than apparently popping out into the real world. You also had to be fairly close to get the 3D effect, which flattens as you move away.

Sadly, the nature of the technology is that it can't be replicated in photographs, so we can't show it to you. Sorry. You literally had to be there.

In an interesting demo, Leia hooked up a 3D screen to a Leap Motion sensor. Waving and turning your hand over the motion sensor then moved and rotated a 3D image of a CAT scan, suggesting uses for doctors or engineers to explore their patients or projects in three dimensions in a way that would be impossible to achieve physically.

Leia is still a way away from appearing in actual products you can buy. It'll first be available as a dev kit, in the form of a small display a couple of inches square. That's coming by the end of this year.

And the name? When the technology was under development at HP Labs it was called Project Leia, and the name stuck when the team struck out on their own. Let's just hope the copyright bods at Disney -- which owns "Star Wars" character Princess Leia -- are feeling charitable...

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