The big picture

The big picture

Yasushi Yamamoto thinks the time may be right for three-dimensional (3D) display technology. Twenty years after a generation of movie-goers filed into theatres, 3D glasses in hand, to watch a mechanical shark lunge at them in Jaws 3D, the Sharp employee claims a new generation of display technologies may soon have you dodging computer-generated foes, getting a close up view of a bug on the rain forest’s floor or taking a stomach-churning trip inside your own body.

He’s not alone. Led by Sharp and Sanyo, more than 100 companies formed the 3D Consortium (3DC) a year ago to jointly promote 3D hardware and software. Among the group, of which Yamamoto works for the management secretariat, are some of the best known names in electronics, such as Sony, Toshiba, Samsung and LG Electronics.

The group was formed to solve a classic chicken-and-egg problem dogging 3D, said Yamamoto: Without an installed base of hardware there is no software but nobody wants to pay a premium for hardware without software.

The kick the industry needs might come from Sharp. It has developed a dual-mode liquid crystal display (LCD) which can display 3D images or be switched to act like a conventional 2D display. That’s a big step because most previous displays were 3D only and required lots of specially written software and few people want to invest in such a screen without the promise of content.

The 3D function of the display works because of a set of vertical black lines in front of the display. These lines, known as a parallax barrier, are positioned so that each of your eyes only sees half the pixels. This effectively halves the total resolution of the display but allows for a 3D image to be seen without any special glasses and, Yamamoto said, the 3D effect more than makes up for the lower resolution.

Sharp has already put this display into two mobile telephones for NTT DoCoMo and combined sales of the handsets had passed the million mark, Yamamoto said. That’s pretty impressive for a 3D device although he admitted its impossible to know how many people bought the phones because of the 3D screen and how many people are using the 3D content. The telephones came with two Java games that make use of the 3D mode.

Causing much more excitement in the 3D community recently has been the release by of a couple of notebook computers using the switchable screens from Sharp: Sharp’s PC-RD3D, launched late last year, and NEC’s Lavie S LS900/8E, launched in January. In 2D mode you couldn’t tell the display apart from other Windows XP-based notebook computers but on switching to 3D mode, objects begin jumping out of the screen.

For this type of display to really take off among consumers, researchers and product designers are going to have to make this technology stable on large screens that can be used in living rooms, an analyst with ARS, Ashley Domis, said.

Sanyo might have a solution soon. More than a year ago it demonstrated a prototype 50-inch Plasma Display Panel (PDP) that can show 3D images and said it hoped to be in a position to begin supplying samples of the display in the first half of 2004.

What they are likely to cost is unknown. The two notebooks from Sharp and NEC both have hefty price tags of $US3000 and $US3600 respectively.

That’s probably too much to enable mass consumer adoption but not a barrier for business users, Yamamoto said.

Right now a lot of business applications were being developed that made use of the technology, he said.

One of the key members of the 3DC, NTT Data, has a lot of mapping data of Japan and is working on ways to represent it in three dimensions.

Applications in medicine are also envisaged.

Back in the consumer market, content remains a problem although NEC is trying to entice buyers with a 3D version of the popular Final Fantasy game.

Entertainment content in 3D might be available soon in Japan. A new satellite broadcasting service, due to be launched in the middle of this year by Mobile Broadcasting Corporation (MBCO), would beam video to small handheld devices and Sharp was considering the development of a terminal with 3D display and the provision of some 3D programming, MBCO said.

Another consortium member, the US-based Dynamic Digital Depth, is working on adding an additional dimension to existing 2D.

The other solution was to create the content in 3D from the start and that’s how 3D would take off in the consumer space, Yamamoto said.

A number of digital camera makers are part of the 3DC and one of them, Pentax, is already selling cameras that can take rudimentary 3D images.

Others people, such as Steven Smith, a research specialist with MIT’s Media Laboratory, are dreaming beyond today’s displays and thinking about even more advanced 3D imaging. His group is working on displays that maintain the full resolution of an image while displaying it in three dimensions.

MIT is working to create a display that lets multiple users view 3D images without having to stare at one portion of the screen or view images of poor resolution.

The technique requireds a fast processor to refresh an LCD screen about twice as fast as current screens were capable, Smith said.

These displays are called full resolution autostereoscopic displays. A viewer can move their head from side to side, or get up and walk around, and the image will still appear in three dimensions. The trick is to refresh the images at speeds incapable of detection by the human eye, so multiple viewing areas can be created with no impact to resolution or the viewer’s position.

The processing power was already here to allow this to happen, Smith said. Graphics card manufacturers such as Nvidia or ATI already made some of the most sophisticated and powerful graphics technology in the world, but many customers couldn’t take advantage of their full potential due to CPU or memory bottlenecks.

Likewise, display technologies are not yet sophisticated enough to accept images at the speeds required to enable autostereoscopic 3D images, Smith said.

He acknowledged the timeframe for this technology extended into the future, but wasn’t worried about how long it might take.

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