Kyle Schurman
Nov 14, 2011

The 3D push: All flash, no substance?

Few technologies aimed squarely at the consumer market have been more hyped in the past few years than 3D. The latest is a prototype 3D display from Japan that uses multiple lenses inside the display to enhance depth perception and to create multiple layers in the display, allowing the display to simulate 3D without the need for special glasses.  


This 3D display, introduced by researchers at Tsukuba University in Japan, was perhaps the most interesting of the several 3D-related products showcased at the recent CEATEC 2011 show in Japan. Toshiba's 3D glasses-less Regza televisions were featured at the show as well (as seen in the photo above).


Although 3D products and 3D ideas have been around for decades, the amount of money spent on research in the past several years has ramped up considerably.  


Between the ugly glasses and the sometimes blurry, sometimes gimmicky results, however, 3D technology is still waiting for that product that will push it to the forefront of the market.  Perhaps the Tsukuba University research will be the idea that eventually tips the 3D market. Keeping in mind that it’s still a research prototype, this 3D display uses layers of lenses to create different areas of focal depth in the screen. With this display, when objects at the front of the scene should be in sharp focus, the objects toward the back are blurred, and vice versa, which enhances the 3D feeling.  


Essentially, this display attempts to reproduce focal depth. With this type of design, viewers do not need 3D glasses, and, theoretically, they should be able to view the 3D effect from a variety of angles and positions.  However, this technology from Tsukuba is far from ready for market. The resolution is only about 200x200 pixels, which, obviously, is nowhere near sharp enough for today’s society, which likes its HDTV … and likes it a lot.


One solution the researchers proposed was to use multiple connected screens to increase the resolution.   Additionally, the technology could remain at a low resolution, but it could be used by object-recognition software that requires the ability to view scenes in 3D to improve accuracy. A robot could make use of this type of low-resolution 3D screen, for example, to more accurately interact with the 3D physical world around it.  


However, in media reports, the researchers did not rule out the possibility of finding a way to transfer this type of 3D technology into the consumer arena. This is the kind of thing that tends to add to the confusion over 3D. With so much varying 3D research and so many varying solutions out there – and with none if it really feeling like it’s perfected – consumers tend to throw up their hands in frustration and avoid it completely.


This disconnect continues to show that the high-tech marketplace, especially for consumer electronics, is a bit odd. At times, it feels like the manufacturers are pushing technologies at consumers that they may not really want or in which they don’t really see the value.  


Computing power sometimes feels this way these days. The chip makers continue to add power and features to processors, yet we’re to a point that most people are never going to be able to push the hardware anywhere near its limits, unless they are computer gamers, overclockers, or high-end video editors. For most computer users, at this time there just aren’t enough software components that can come close to pushing the limitations of the hardware.  


Then there’s the smartphone market, where it feels more like consumers drive the development. If consumers want a particular feature, chances are good that someone will develop a downloadable app in relatively short order.  


So where does the 3D market fit in this equation? Who’s driving the development? Based on sales of 3D TVs and other consumer-related 3D electronics products, which have been lukewarm so far, consumers don’t seem to be all that excited about spending several hundred dollars or more on 3D products. That certainly could change heading into what will be an important holiday season for 3D.  


On a much smaller economic scale, consider how many times you’ve paid a few extra dollars for a 3D movie, yet, afterward, you felt like all you received from your 3D investment was a headache and a wish that you could’ve gone to a 2D version instead. Do you need more than the fingers on one hand to count the number movies you have seen that have really and truly enhanced the movie by using 3D effects? I know I don’t.  


And that’s where 3D technology now sits. Is it a gimmick or does it actually enhance anything? If it is a gimmick, how can companies justify spending billions on investments in 3D technologies? Or is it just a matter of the 3D content that’s available becoming useful enough to catch up to the technology (similar to where we’re at with computing processors now) to make the investments worthwhile?  


There’s a saying that’s common in the American Heartland: All hat, no cattle. It’s meant to describe a person, such as a cattle rancher, who wears the biggest cowboy hat he can find, looks the part of a successful rancher, and does a lot of talking about how great his operation is. However, when it’s time to show everyone the truth, the rancher actually doesn’t have any cattle to take to market, and the rancher’s illusions of a large, successful operation are shattered.


We’ve heard enough about the possibilities of 3D, and how it’s going to change the world. With all of the investments numerous companies have made in 3D, it’s time to show us the cattle … if there are any floating around out there that can be seen without wearing goofy glasses, that is.