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Prototype could revive glasses-free 3D displays

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A prototype of a new glasses-free 3D television system from Dolby 3D impressed industry analysts at the National Association of Broadcasters show last week in Las Vegas. The partnership of Dolby Labs and Royal Philips Electronics has enlisted director James Cameron and others in an effort to rescue 3D TV from flagging consumer interest.

The success of Cameron's blockbuster film Avatar launched a wave of 3D movies, closely followed by 3D TVs for home use. But box office sales dropped as the public grew tired of a 3D experience that could trigger nausea, and consumers showed little interest in buying expensive 3D TV sets that required them to wear bulky shutter glasses to see the stereo view.

"Auto-stereoscopic" designs promise 3D screens without the need for glasses. The first generation of these were mostly small screens intended for use by a single person, like the Nintendo 3DS game console, which are easier to make because they need only accommodate a single pair of eyes. Last year a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology introduced a more elaborate 3D "Tensor", or compressive, display that used the same computing techniques found in CAT scans, which can show multiple viewers 3D images across a 50-degree range. But it required a lot of computing horsepower to accomplish.

Dolby says they have now developed a system that encodes a 3D image stream and can decode it in real time to produce 3D without the need for glasses on "any 3D TV, tablet, laptop or smartphone" with sufficient resolution. The design requires adding a sheet of plastic with undulations that deflect light at 26 different angles simultaneously, offering effective 3D views from a wide range of angles. Because resolution is lost as an image is split and sent in different directions, the underlying display must be four times the resolution of HD television. Such displays are expensive, but they are becoming available, so 3D may yet have a future.