Toshiba Shows No-Glasses 3D

Here’s the good news: at CEATAC in Tokyo this week, Toshiba demonstrated its flat panel HDTVs that create 3D images without the need for any special glasses. The technical term is autostereoscopic, and it’s just what consumers have been clamoring for. And the demonstration now proves what I’ve been saying all along; consumers are going to hate it.

Why would they hate the no-glasses displays, since that’s what they’ve been citing as the reason for not buying 3D HDTVs? The answer is that you must be careful what you wish for. In this case, the cure is far worse than the disease. Don’t take my word for it; here’s a quote from an article in the LA Times:

You can’t just plop down anywhere in the living room and watch 3-D shows on these TVs. The sets have nine designated angles from which the format can be viewed. Otherwise, the screen is a blur.

Yes, you read that correctly. There are exactly nine positions where you see the 3D effect. Anywhere else, the image is scrambled just as if you look at a “regular” 3D HDTV or movie without the special glasses. And trust me; the average US consumer will not sit still for such a burdensome limitation. They’ll be reaching for their 3D glasses faster than you can say “Avatar”.

Why is there this limitation? It’s simple optics. In order to have a stereoscopic 3D image, you need to deliver different images to the left and right eye of the viewer. In order for someone to see the two images in the correct eyes, the images must radiate out somehow from the screen. If you move your head a little to the left, the “left eye” image will now be shining in the right eye. The only way to prevent this problem when you move is to add sophisticated head tracking and a mechanism that lets you “steer” the images to the correct eyes. This has been done for single-viewer displays, but it’s expensive. And it’s just about impossible for multiple viewers watching the screen at the same time.

The only solution is to create “sweet spots”. From the sound of it, Toshiba’s technology may be a lot like the Philips nine-point autostereoscopic display that I saw demonstrated many years ago. It was very effective, but only when you stood in the correct spot, and you stood still.

If that’s not enough of a wet blanket for consumer enthusiasm, how about this? The new sets will only be sold in Japan for now, but the 20″ model will go for a cool $2,950. What’s that? I’d say it’s about ten times the price of a 20″ HDTV, or maybe five times if you allow for 3D support. The $1,400 difference would pay for enough glasses for a big family, and still have some extras for when friends drop by.

I don’t blame people for wanting to get 3D without glasses, but the fact is that it just can’t work in a way that lets you walk around the room watching it like you can a traditional 2D HDTV image. And it’s expensive at that.

My hope is that the Toshiba demonstration will finally get American consumers to lower their expectations and accept that it’s either 3D with the glasses, or no 3D. They really won’t be happy with the third choice.