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Push is on to create 3D experience without special glasses
Less May Be More for 3-D TV

Jun 29, 2012 By SAM GROBART

Last week, I went downtown to a PR firm’s office to get a demonstration of a “3-D-without-the-stupid-glasses” (my description, not theirs) display from a Philadelphia start-up, Stream TV.

The TV industry has been pushing 3-D as The Next Big Thing for more than two and a half years. The problem is, we consumers don’t really seem to care all that much about it.

It could be that one of the obstacles to embracing 3-D is the requirement that we wear glasses to view it. Nobody wants to do this. (O.K., some people might, but generally speaking, it’s been a nonstarter. Who wants to sit around on a couch and look at everyone as if he’s Special Agent So-and-So from the F.B.I.?

Stream TV is looking to change that. What it has is a system — a display and set-top box the company calls “Ultra D” — that creates a 3-D effect without any eyewear involved.

Stream TV is not the only company working on this technology; Toshiba, Samsung, LG and plenty of others have their own displays in the works. Stream TV’s pitch is that its technology — which consists of a lenticular-like layer bonded to a standard display and a box to render any signal, 3-D or not, into a 3-D image — works within a wider viewing angle than competing systems.

What I saw was pretty good. My mind was not blown in any particular fashion, but Stream TV’s system managed to display native 3-D video, as well as content that was shot in 2-D, in some degree of 3-D, without glasses, across a wide range of viewing angles.

Without glasses, it’s a little more difficult to get that “pop” that you can get in a theater; no pterodactyls fly directly over your head. What you see with a system like Stream TV’s is more what I’d call 2.5-D: a high-definition image with an added dose of depth, not so much that you’d mistake it for a 3-D demo at your local science center, but an image that has a little more visual information than your standard 2-D image.

And perhaps that’s the future of 3-D when it comes to TVs — a more limited form of 3-D. In theaters, you can go all-out. Wearing glasses is not as disruptive there as in your living room, and you can enjoy those 3-D effects that are projected on a screen four stories high. At home, though? Well, the glasses are D.O.A., but so is the idea that you’re going to want massive 3-D effects flying into your face. When the Stream TV guys cranked up the 3-D effect to maximum, the image looked unnatural and my eyes had trouble focusing. But dial it down to, say, 30 percent? It doesn’t read as “3-D,” just a really interesting 2-D image.

I think two things are going to happen when it comes to 3-D. The first is, the glasses-less technology will be refined, made less bulky and expensive and ultimately wind up on a lot of new displays, whether you want it there or not. There is a historical precedent for this. When cameras first started showing up in cellphones, more than a few people asked, “Why would I want a camera in my phone?” But in a few short years, that question was irrelevant because all phones had cameras. I suspect 3-D will go the same way; it will be another feature that becomes commonplace on all new displays.

Once that ubiquity happens, you may choose to watch something in 3-D the same way you’d choose between HD and SD today. If it’s a movie or a sporting event, sure. If it’s a 22-minute sitcom, who cares?

Maybe this is more of a marketing problem than anything else. By promoting “3-D,” the TV industry has made two mistakes. It has pushed a technology that isn’t really ready yet, with the clumsy glasses and the lack of 3-D content. But it also has raised expectations. If “3-D” is defined more as “HD+,” and is executed in a simple, affordable way, then perhaps more people will take advantage of it.

It just won’t be a huge deal when they do.

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