3D Technology for Mobile Devices

Avatar brought 3D technology back from the dead —will we keep it alive?

While those of us with grayer hair may remember the Thriller ride at Disneyland, Avatar’s colossal graphics put 3D technology back on the mainstream map in 2009. 3D televisions have followed suit with Samsung just releasing a 75-inch 3D HDTV costing a whopping $13,000. Even YouTube built a 3D channel to accommodate the uptick in 3D camera sales.

Yet three dimensional imagery, or stereoscopy if you speak geek, has been around since 1838. (Alexander Graham Bell wouldn’t be awarded the patent for the telephone until 1876.) A professor at King’s College in London named Charles Wheatstone described how the mind perceived "an object of three-dimensions by means of the two dissimilar pictures projected by it on the two retinae" and how this double projection gave two-dimensional images a three-dimensional depth.

Despite Wheatstone’s ability to distill 3D graphics into the most boring terms possible, it’s doubtful whether he and the other chaps at the club discussed how such a revelation could be integrated into smartphone technology.

Yet today experts hotly debate the topic.

At the core lies the famed chicken and egg conundrum: Smartphone producers are hesitant to invest heavily in hardware when there aren’t many 3D applications to be had; and, smartphone application developers are cautious to invest in software because there aren’t many 3D smartphones around.

For consumers, the simple question is worth asking: Will 3D technology significantly enhance our smartphone experience? In terms of managing contacts, text messages and taking calls, probably not. But what about pictures, webpages, apps and games? (If we set aside the nausea and headache complaints, that is.)

The LG Optimus 3D has wowed tech reviewers recently with their advances on those fronts. Both are powered by the Android OS and feature a 3D camera for pictures and film. Dual lenses snap slightly askew images and create Wheatstone’s "two dissimilar pictures" which are displayed on a 4.3-inch screen, complete with parallax barrier —a futuristically named layer comprised of thousands of tiny slits, angled to show either dissimilar picture to separate eyes.

Think of staring at a neighbor’s yard through a picket fence, first with your right eye and then your left, and you’ll start to get the idea. This development obviates the need for the dorky 3D glasses—now that they’re essentially installed within the screen. The downside is that you have to look at the screen head-on; from the side, the image will be garbled.

So what happens when we send pictures to friends, post them or upload them on our computers? The device that receives the image will need a proper screen to display the 3D depth; otherwise, the image will return to boring 2D.

Those that remember the Thriller ride at Disneyland will also recall the fledgling existence of videophones: landline phones with little video cameras and screens. These failed, not because they weren’t cool or useful—Skype, Facetime and Google Chat all proved we wanted the technology—but because no one else had one. They were expensive and the market never created the critical mass needed to get it off the ground.

Likewise, we won’t pony up too much extra dough for a smartphone with a 3D camera if we can’t share our 3D pictures. Both of the 3D-capable LG Optimus and HTC Evo phones are starting at a cool $699.99, without a plan, which isn’t crazy when compared to $649.99 and $749.99 for the 16 and 32 GB iPhone 4, respectively.

Early adopters may be happy enough to flaunt their 3D pictures on their own screen as they wait for the rest of the market to catch up. ("I got my 3D phone back in mid-2011.")

While the chicken and egg scenario makes 3D content creation slow to-date, it’s not to say nothing exists. Best-of-the-best lists are around, but they don’t exactly knock your socks off. However, these rosters will be one of the strongest litmus tests: If we see name brand games investing in the graphics, the market for the technology has strong signs of life.

Gaming-centric phones whose producers have strong relationships with developers, like the Nintendo 3DS and the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, will lead the charge for better content, but will probably maintain silos of content (e.g., Nintendo games versus Playstation games).

So?

Screen technology must improve even more. The parallax barriers are clever, but it’s cumbersome to only be able to view the screen straight on; we don’t like to neck with friends as we look at pictures. And no one wants to feel sick or go back to 3D glasses.

Manufacturers have to spur content developers to create engaging applications. It’s pointless to own a phone with an advanced technology that has no use.

If we’re honest, just about every feature of our phone, besides what we use to make calls, is a bell or a whistle. In that same light, 3D is cool, but unlike cameras, email and GPS it’s tough to argue that we’d ever really "need" the technology.

By Caleb Garling