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Summary:

As it has with other technologies, Apple may hold the key to help bring 3-D technology to the masses. Apple has been awarded a patent on a new auto-stereoscopic 3-D projection system that allows multiple viewers to watch 3-D content without glasses.

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In-home, 3-D television is still struggling to gain traction, with little content available — and then there are those annoying glasses you have to use. But in the same way it has popularized other technologies such as touch, Apple may hold the key to help bring easy-to-use 3-D technology to the masses. The company has been awarded a patent on a new auto-stereoscopic 3-D projection system that allows multiple viewers to watch 3-D content without glasses.

Apple’s patent describes a rather complicated set-up involving a motion-tracking system that monitors the eyes of multiple users, then projects pixels onto a “projection screen having a predetermined angularly-responsive reflective surface function.” The screen would essentially deliver different views for different people based on their eye position.

Glass-less 3-D is available now, but it suffers from a narrow viewing angle that makes it hard for groups of TV viewers to enjoy. That’s made it a tough sell for TVs, but has allowed it to be deployed in handsets. Nintendo is working on a 3DS handheld that will deploy the technology.

If Apple’s technology works, it could be a breakthrough for home 3-D use. Sales of 3-D displays have been slow to take off, with DisplaySearch projecting sales of 1.6 million sets shipped this year, just 2 percent of all TVs. Part of the problem is the glasses, which are not only uncomfortable for many users, but also expensive — usually costing more than $100 per pair. That makes it hard to outfit a large family, not to mention something like a 3-D Superbowl party.

Apple’s patent describes uses beyond home entertainment — including medical diagnostics, flight simulation, air traffic control, battlefield simulation, weather diagnostics, advertising and education. In-Stat says the technology could also help boost gaming on Mac computers and could be used to present 3-D TV through the Apple TV set-top box.

Judging by the patents, it’s unlikely this will be released very soon. But with devices like the Xbox Kinect able to do full body detection, it shows that our relationship with TVs can evolve to include motion input, where our TVs can watch us, just as we watch them. Now, if Apple can apply similar technology to track our eyes and apply that to a screen that can really separate views for different people, this could be an important breakthrough for 3-D. It won’t be easy, but Apple has as good a chance of making it happen as anyone — and maybe better.

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  1. Apple’s Patent May Bring 3D-TV into the Living Room | SiliconANGLE Tuesday, December 7, 2010

    [...] an almost sci-fi technology that would permit a room filled with people to experience the 3D. According to GigaOM, Apple’s patent describes a rather complicated set-up involving a motion-tracking system that [...]

  2. A little simple arithmetic shows that, for a user and a projector both about six feet from the screen, the frame buffer would need to have a resolution in excess of 100,000 addressable pixels. It’s not going to happen anytime soon.

  3. @Ian.. Considering there are 2073600 pixels on an HD screen at a time, that means there are enough for 20 people to watch in 3D with your arithmetic..

    Just sayin’.

  4. Angela Wilson Gyetvan Tuesday, December 7, 2010

    Hi, Ryan:

    There’s no doubt that glasses-free or autostereoscopic displays are going to be very popular. But as you suggested yourself, this innovation is probably not imminent. I think that in, 2011, we will see more 3D TV’s that use passive glasses solutions (a la RealD theaters), in addition to the current active glasses solutions. Interestingly enough, there have been studies released in the wake of “Black Friday” that indicate that 3D TV adoption is outpacing HD TV adoption at this stage of its evolution, thanks to the influence of gaming and sports. I, for one, am looking forward to a future of NCAA basketball in 3D.

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