3D cell phones? Some think it's only a matter of time

Mike Dano

In the past few weeks alone we've seen the launch or introduction of the Android-powered Droid X, Evo 4G, Epic 4G, Galaxy S variants, Droid Incredible, Intercept, Flipout, Charm--and the list goes on (and that's just Android).

The crush of new handsets hitting the market again underscores the need for handset manufacturers to rise above the noise with new and unique products. Thus far such efforts have largely revolved around varying screen sizes, user interface overlays, innovative apps and other tweaks. So what's the next new thing? Sean Mitchell thinks it's going to be 3D technology.

"We're seeing huge interest now," said Mitchell, CEO of Movidius, which sells chip technology for, among other things, processing and rendering 3D images.

Others agree. "Of course, not all smartphone makers will be rolling out 3D handsets next year, but with so many Android-based devices now hitting the market, cell phone vendors will become desperate for product differentiation," wrote chip analyst Will Strauss of Forward Concepts recently. "Clearly, this could be a big differentiation from the rest of the mob."

Does this mean smartphone owners are going to have to wear special 3D glasses just to check their email? Not really, explained Mitchell. He said there actually several different technologies that can essentially "trick" the eye into seeing a 3D image without the use of special glasses (dubbed "Autostereoscopy" for those technically inclined). Among the techniques:

  • Parallax barrier. A special material is placed over an LCD screen allowing each eye to see only a specific group of pixels. The brain then assembles the information into a 3D image. However, this approach requires that the viewer be in a specific location in order to obtain the desired effect.
  • Lenticular lenses. An array of cylindrical lenses is positioned on an LCD display, and the lenses direct specific pixels of light to each eye.
  • Backlight barrier. A barrier is inserted between an LCD backlight and the back of a display. A 3D image is created by manipulating the LCD backlight, thereby projecting two different, full-resolution images projected to each eye. However, this approach requires significant changes to current LCD manufacturing processes.

Movidius sells chips for high-resolution 3D video capture and display, and expects commercial phone launches with its chips in the spring of next year. The company, founded five years ago and based in Dublin, scored a $7.5 million Series B funding round in May.

But Movidius isn't the only 3D glasses-less game in town. Nintendo plans to release its 3D-capable 3DS portable game unit next year, and handset vendors including Samsung and others have teased the Asian market with a smattering of 3D phones.

"The next challenge is to get the capture capability" for 3D, Mitchell said, explaining that he expects cell phones to soon sport two separate, adjacent cameras, thereby enabling users to record 3D video. Surely James Cameron has already placed his order.

Will the next "Avatar" be filmed on a cell phone? Probably not, but based on the momentum behind 3D in TVs, theaters and elsewhere, don't be surprised to see cell phones soon fall into the crowd. --Mike