We won’t be taking off the glasses to see 3D in the foreseeable future, despite a promising start.
At CES 2012, Toshiba had prototype screens showing glasses-free 3D technology. Through special filters and electronics, you could look at the screen and see a 3D picture without putting on glasses. They weren’t perfect, but they were prototypes, and they showed off a promising new technology, especially in the face of the success of the Nintendo 3DS, which uses similar technology on a smaller scale.
There hasn’t been much word on the glasses-free 3D HDTVs since CES, and there’s a reason for that: glasses-free 3D isn’t happening any time soon. The technology isn’t close to ready and in an age where even conventional 3D is still relatively unwieldy and expensive, the glasses are going to stay on.
The Nintendo 3DS proved to be a fun novelty with its glasses-free 3D, but I found myself playing games with 3D turned off more often than not just from the convenience. The device’s screen depth can enhance your games, but it forces you to keep your head and the device very still to keep your eyes aligned with the filtered screen. If you move your head or the 3DS slightly in any direction, the images separate and flicker.
The glasses-free 3D HDTVs I saw at CES had the same problem. Getting in the “sweet spot” was difficult, and even for the Toshiba HDTV that boasted eye-tracking technology that could adjust the filters to meet your eye positions, the 3D effect didn’t work well. Even with the screen fixed in place, I had to keep my head in just the right position to get the 3D effect, and watching the HDTV from any other direction than straight-on in that position is difficult because of the image separation.
According to a spokesman at Sony, no glasses-free 3D screens are commercially available outside of the small ones used in the company’s 3D Handicams, which are about the size or smaller than the Nintendo 3DS’s own screen. Larger screens, like notebooks and HDTVs, are still securely in the “future tech” category of technology being previewed as a concept, not a product. Toshiba has been similarly quiet about glasses-free 3D HDTVs, with no news about the technology since it was shown off at CES.
Part of the problem is in developing the technology, but it’s also the convenience and ease of use of it. 3D glasses can offer a solid 3D picture across a wide viewing angle depending on the HDTV and 3D technology used (passive 3D glasses tend to display more crosstalk when watched from the sides). Glass-free 3D requires users to keep their heads in the sweet spot where the two images align to their respective eyes. Toshiba previewed eye-tracking that would adjust the filter accordingly, but it was even less developed than the 3D displays themselves.
We might see a lot of promise in what the technology could be given time and resources, but for now it simply is unworkable for most users. When gamers quickly turn off 3D on their 3DS because it’s easier than enjoying the depth of a game, how can we assume even more casual consumers will have the patience to sit stock-straight in just the right position for two hours at a time to watch a 3D movie? Even with eye-tracking, we’re several generations away from a screen that’s responsive enough to make watching 3D TV without glasses comfortable.
Las Vegas and the Nintendo 3DS gave us glimpses at what 3D HDTVs could give us in the future, but for now glasses-free 3D will stay on small screens, and very few of them. Even then, it’s a limited technology that has gelled even less than wearing glasses to watch 3D on your HDTV.
By Will Greenwald, PCMag