No-Glasses 3DTV This Year?

There’s been a buzz caused by a news item from the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun. According to the story, Toshiba has plans to release 3DTV models later this year that will not require the special glasses used with other 3D displays such as those from Panasonic or Samsung. Here’s the key section from the story:

Toshiba has developed an integral imaging system that emits rays of light at different angles, allowing viewers’ brains to recreate 3-D images without special glasses. The new technology also will enable viewers to enjoy 3-D content from numerous viewing positions, and the images will not strain the eyes, the sources said.

Before you join the excited throngs, note the “numerous viewing positions” phrase. While the article is not specific, this sounds exactly like a typical lenticular lens arrangement that has been used in computer monitors and other displays to create auto-stereoscopic (no glasses) 3D images for years. In fact, it’s exactly the same concept behind those “flicker” baseball cards that I knew about half a century ago; as you turn the card, you see a different image. A flat panel display using this approach will let you see one image with the left eye and a different image with the right eye. But there’s one huge catch; you have to be seated in a specific location in order to see the two images in the correct eyes.

Early displays of this type only had only one “sweet spot”. I think it was about five years ago that Philips demonstrated a large flat panel that had nine viewing points, but as far as I know, they have never made it into a commercial product. (It was expensive at the time, and they figured that it would be used for digital signage, not home entertainment.)

So the key point here is that you will have to sit in specific locations around the room in order to see the 3D effect. I know that people say that they don’t like the idea of having to wear “goofy glasses” just to watch TV, and to spend all the money required to have enough glasses on hand when company comes over. But I believe that forcing people to sit in specific locations in the room is going to be even less popular.

And there’s an economic reason why I don’t think this will work. With existing 3DTV sets, they don’t cost much more than equivalent sets without 3D support. And that difference is going to rapidly fall to near-zero. By putting the extra cost in the glasses, they can keep the price of the sets competitive with 2D sets. If you increase the production costs of the TV significantly however — and I expect that the cost for these Toshiba sets will be considerably higher — people will balk at paying extra. And as the cost of the glasses falls, which it will, the auto-stereoscopic approach is going to be too expensive by comparison.

This story is a case of old wine in new bottles, and I don’t see how it can be successful for Toshiba.