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Glasses-free 3D TVs are on the horizon, not around the corner

The ink on the active shutter glasses 3D TV specifications is barely dry that glasses-free 3D autostereoscopic systems are already showing up as prototype consumer products on the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Toshiba plans to introduce in North America, Japan and Europe, in April, 3D TV sets ranging from 20-inch to 65-inch in size, that do not require viewers to wear 3D glasses. The larger models employ an LED-backlit panel with a 4096×2160 pixel resolution – the so-called 4K format.

These TV sets will use Toshiba’s Cevo engine, which allows for a high level of picture processing in order to run the glasses-free 3D on the large screens. The company has previously claimed that the Cevo technology enables it to offer 3D picture quality on a par with 2D.

Going some way into addressing an inherent challenge of glasses-free 3D technology so far, Toshiba’s advanced view point overlay technology means viewers do not need to stay at a particular spot to experience optimized 3D effect, they can move their head while watching the 3D content.

The Japanese manufacturer was also showing a glasses-free 3D laptop screen.

Toshiba expects the new models to help boost TV sales 33% to 20 million units next fiscal year. Toshiba, the sixth largest flat-panel TV maker, had 5.5% of the world market in the first nine months of 2010 in terms of revenue, according to researcher DisplaySearch. Samsung was the largest with a 22.8% share.

Not to be left behind, Sony was demonstrating its own range of glasses-free 3D TVs, with early prototypes of an OLED TV. While impressive, observers at CES noted they had to stand in quite precise locations for 3D to work. Also, the relatively small size of current OLEDs did not allow for maximum immersive 3D experience.

Sony has opted for a 2K1K (2,048x1,080-pixel) screen format, which makes up for some of the resolution loss that is inevitable with 3D LCD TVs that do not require 3D glasses to work.

The manufacturer unveiled a portable 3D glasses-free Blu-ray disc player with a 10-inch screen.

Sony also demonstrated a prototype of another 3D viewing system that is "all glasses and no TV." The head-mounted display (pictured) features two OLED 1,280x720 screens, one for each eye, to display the 3D image. Headphones are built-in and produce 5.1 sound.

For its part, LG featured a "future 3D technology" demo with a 55-inch, 4K side-lit panel. Viewers were invited to stand in a spot about 12-feet away to maximize the effect. LG’s other glasses-free 3D offering was the showcase of a prototype glasses-free 3D mobile device.

The consensus of those who have seen glasses-free 3D demos (including this writer) is that, while the technology is certainly on the horizon, it is not yet around the corner when it comes to supplying the immersive 3D experience consumers are being promised. Battery-operated active shutter glasses have put the quality bar very high and will be the engine of growth for 3D television in the short to medium term.

Controlling the largest share of flat panel TVs, Samsung says it has no immediate plan for glasses-free 3D displays. Company executives noted the technological hurdles of reduced picture resolution, very narrow viewing range and high expense. Also, the Korean maker will stick to the active shutter glasses approach as the passive 3D system (used in 3D theaters) does not optimize picture quality as well. Panasonic takes the same line.

LG said it will start selling two 3D display models, a 47-inch and a 65-inch one, later this year that use lighter, cheaper glasses. Each will include four pairs.

3D consumer products are so new on the market that whether Christmas sales met expectations is verging on the irrelevant, which does not stop forecasters from trying. One view holds that estimates fell short of expectations.

Samsung estimates 1 million 3D sets were sold in the US in 2010, far short of its initial estimate of 3 million to 4 million.

A DisplaySearch analyst suggests that the dearth of 3D movies and TV channels, rather than the glasses, was the main factor holding back the market. The research group estimates 3.2 million 3D sets were sold worldwide last year. Going forward, the research group seems confident that the content will come, and predicts the number of 3D TVs sold will grow to 18 million this year.

Story filed 10.01.11

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