The return of 3D mobile (possibly)

28 Mar 2013

ITEM: HP Labs has developed a 3D display that creates hologram-like images that can be seen in three dimensions from up to 200 points of view.

In other words, it’s the next attempt by researchers to create viable 3D images on a mobile phone. Which begs the question: does anyone still want them to?

A few years ago, as 3D became a hit in cinemas, electronics vendors were hoping to duplicate that success with other screens – namely, flat-panel TVs and smartphones. At the 2010 Mobile World Congress, SK Telecom was showcasing its 3D conversion technology for flat-panel TVs and a 3D version of its satellite-DMB mobile TV service with TU Media.

A year later, several vendors were showcasing 3D smartphones, including LG Electronics, which debuted its Optimus 3D smartphone. HTC followed suit later that year with the EVO 3D.

But 3D hasn’t really caught on since then – not as much as manufacturers had hoped. 3D TV sales did grow 72% last year globally, but they account for a fraction of TV sales. Also, it’s unclear how many customers bought them specifically for the 3D capability, as some sales have been attributed to people who just thought they were buying a high-end HDTV.

As for mobile devices, it’s safe to say 3D has not taken off. Reasons vary. Some customers find it either too gimmicky, or a literally sickening experience. Lack of content has also slowed things down. Also, as 3D chipset company Movidius explained to your reporter back in 2011, getting 3D right on a small screen is hard.

The next big advance for 3D, however, could be a multi-view 3D display (as opposed to conventional 3D displays that only over one point of view – the “fourth wall” of the screen itself). Some companies are doing multi-view 3D using technologies from rapidly spinning mirrors to lasers and multiple graphics processors.

HP Labs is taking a different approach – nanopatterned grooves (also called “directional pixels”) to send light off in different directions, which requires no new moving parts, and can built into the backlight of the display, reports Technology Review:

The HP display replaces the randomly scattering bumps in a normal LCD with deliberately patterned grooves. Each “directional pixel” has three sets of grooves that direct red, green, and blue light in one particular direction. The number of directional pixels determines the number of viewpoints the display can produce. Light from the pixels then passes through a conventional array of liquid crystal shutters that pass or block the light to make a moving image—just like in a conventional LCD.

The HP researchers showed that they could make static images with 200 viewpoints, or videos with 64 viewpoints and 30 frames per second—so far. The number of viewpoints in the video system has been limited by their ability to put the backlight together with the nanopatterned liquid-crystal shutters in the lab.

The good news, says HP researcher David Fattal, is that the multi-view 3D screen should be easy to manufacture because it’s essentially a modification for an existing LCD.

The bad news: multi-view 3D requires content to have 200 different images, so – just like with existing 3D – content makers have to catch up with the technology (and they need a commercial incentive to do so).

Consequently, Fattal tells TR, the most likely initial apps for multi-view 3D will involve computer-generated images:

“A 3-D interface for a cell phone or laptop might display different windows next to each other, or architects could use a tablet to show a 3-D model to a customer, instead of building a physical model,” Fattal says. “Or you might use a smart watch to view Google Maps in 3-D.”

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