It hasn't even been a year since 3D televisions and their accompanying 3D glasses began hitting store shelves, but a development by Toshiba is already threatening to make the 3D glasses obsolete. On Monday the company became the first major television maker to announce TVs that produce pictures with the illusion of depth but don't require glasses.
That should come as great news to consumers, many of whom have expressed reluctance at donning a special pair of glasses to watch a TV show, but only if the televisions produce pictures that match or exceed the quality of current 3D TVs. Toshiba is demonstrating the TVs at this week's Ceatec electronics show in Japan, and on Tuesday we got a chance to compare them with current 3D TVs that require glasses.
The technologies employed by Toshiba and its competitors are very different, but they are both aimed at the same thing: tricking the eyes into seeing depth where there is none. The key to this is delivering a slightly different image to each eye.
In current 3D TVs, images for each eye are displayed rapidly one after the other. Filters in the glasses flash on and off in sync with the TV picture so the right eye sees one image and the left eye sees the next. The system requires the 3D glasses and a TV with additional hardware, but uses a standard LCD (liquid crystal display) panel
Toshiba's TV, on the other hand, has a custom-designed screen. Color pixels have been rearranged into groups of nine of each colour, and in front of each group is a lens that scatters the light in nine different directions. Thanks to the lenses, each of the viewers' eyes will end up seeing light from different directions and that's enough to create the illusion of depth.
So how does it look?
The demonstrations at Ceatec revealed a goodlooking high definition 3D picture, but like systems that require glasses, the technology is far from perfect.
To get the 3D image you first have to find a sweet spot from which to view it. The lenses are firing off light in many directions, so the 3D effect is better in some positions than in others. The viewing distance from the screen is also important. Toshiba says the optimal viewing distance for its 20-inch screen is 90 centimeters from the display, but it will work at greater distances.
Once a good viewing position is found, it's only a matter of moving your head a little to one side, the 3D images are easy to see. A fishing swimming past an underwater camera and a skier racing through the snow towards a camera produced easily discernible depth.
It was easier on my eyes than screens that require glasses. I've always found those to produce vivid 3D effects that were impressive, but ultimately unnatural. A 3D demonstration at the Sony booth next door, which required glasses, showed a picture that appeared to consist of several layers of flat images, not a 3D picture with depth between the foreground and background.
The 3D effect on the Toshiba screen didn't seem quite as pronounced or forced, but that could have been due to the images chosen for the demonstration.
There were also a few problems. I found it difficult to find a place where the entire picture appeared in focus. As I moved my head to bring the centre of the picture into a sharp 3D image, I found the edges looked a bit blurred.
It's also worth pointing out that other people might literally see things differently. More than any other TV technology, 3D seems to create a wide range of reactions. Some love it, some hate it, some get headaches.
Consumers in Japan will soon get a chance to decide if the televisions are enough to make them jump to 3D, although a comparatively high price tag and the early stage of the market will mean many will likely wait until prices come down and the technology matures.
Whatever consumers decide, the emergence of no-glasses sets so soon after the début of 3D television indicates the amount of research and development into 3D television and the fast pace at which the technology is progressing.