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Glasses-free 3D TV tries to broaden out its appeal

TELEVISION makers have shifted their sights from HD to 3D. In 2010, the first 3D TVs from major manufacturers went on sale, and a spate of 3D channels launched around the world.

However, many viewers dislike the special glasses that existing 3D TVs require. Over half of the people asked to watch 30 minutes of 3D TV found the glasses "a hassle", according to a recent report by the Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing, a non-profit cable TV industry body in National Harbor, Maryland. So the emphasis in 2011 is likely to be on "autostereoscopic" displays. These aim separate images at the viewer's right and left eye, with no need for special glasses.

Unlike the 3D TVs already on the market, many of the first glasses-free devices deliver 3D images to just one viewer at a time. That's the case with the Nintendo 3DS, a hand-held gaming unit due for release in Japan in February. It works by interlacing vertical strips of the images for the left and right eye. To do this it has an array of slits - known as a parallax barrier - in front of the screen to ensure that each eye sees only the strips it is meant to, as long as the user stays within a narrow viewing area. That's not a drawback for a hand-held device, but it might be for the first glasses-free 3D TVs, which Toshiba released in Japan in December. They are available with 30-centimetre (12-inch) and 51-centimetre screens, but neither model produces a 3D effect outside a small viewing area.

iPont International, based in Budapest, Hungary, has a different solution. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, this week, it demonstrated a 140-centimetre glasses-free 3D display developed by Tridelity in Jersey City, New Jersey. Tridelity's screens have multiple parallax barriers and so can send light from pairs of images in five directions at once, considerably widening the viewing area so that at least five people can enjoy the 3D experience simultaneously.

iPont has already begun deploying the screens in cinema lobbies, says Glen Harper, the company's business development director. "Far back from the screen, it looks like 2D," he says, "but when people get close enough to see the pop-out effect, they say it's cool."

Tridelity's technology has its own drawbacks, however. Parallax barriers reduce the brightness of the display since they block some of the light, says Doug Lanman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. Dividing the light five ways, as Tridelity's screens do, will only compound that issue, so that viewers will need to be in dark surroundings to see the 3D effect.


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