The 100-Inch 3-D Frickin’ Laser TV

It’s not every day you hear of a seven-employee startup making its own TV, much less a 100-inch laser 3-D TV, but that’s what a bootstrapped company called HDI out of Los Gatos, Calif. has done. Chris and I went on a fieldtrip to HDI HQ last week to see the set in action.

HDI’s 100-inch TV gives off a 1920 x 1080p image from three RGB laser-illuminated micro display imagers. It’s not thin like plasma or LCD, but it’s nice and bright and refreshes quickly at 360 Hz. HDI thinks it can sell the TV for $10-15,000, undercutting what people are used to paying in the home theater market. HDI’s TV can also do 2-D (in fact, it was only in the middle development that HDI realized it could combine 3-D with such a nice screen). The demo unit weighs 80 pounds, is 10 inches deep, and draws 190 watts of power. Panasonic’s 103-inch 3-D TV, by contrast, weighs hundreds of pounds, takes in something like 1.5 kilowatts, and costs$75,000. HDI’s first prototype was finished last month, and at the moment there are only two working TVs; HDI is trying to develop a portable projector version so it can do a roadshow.

Five-year-old HDI spent three years getting this particular technology working, but now it’s in a bit of a rush. The Blu-ray 3-D standards are to be decided this December, and HDI is worried they will go the way of NVIDIA graphics chip standards for PCs, which are based on a system that uses special shutter glasses, which are synced via infrared and help viewers alternate right and left eyes so they can parse 3-D video. HDI’s system is based on the alternate model of dual output TVs and passive polarized glasses.

While the current industry assumption is that active glasses can provide a smoother and better picture — and Mitsubishi is working on a 3-D laser TV of its own in that model — HDI thinks if people experience its version they will see a dual output can look much better. (For a market survey of 3-D technology, see our recent GigaOM Pro report (subscription required)).

HDI has funded $5.5 million in development and technology acquisition out of its founders’ pockets; CEO Ingemar Jansson was a co-founder of Digital Reflection Inc, while CTO Edmund Sandburg was at Ampex and also DRI and designed HD laser projection systems for the military. They bought the intellectual property behind dual 1080p Liquid Crystal on Silicon imagers from a company called MicroDisplay Corp, which had more than$50 million in funding for rear-projection display technology and went out of business.

Now that it has everything working, HDI needs more money and a strategic partner to manufacture its displays and bring them to market. The day Chris and I visited Jansson said he had just finished entertaining a group of executives from Sony, Sharp, Toshiba, JVC, Hitachi and Mitsubishi (pictured), who’d all made the trek to Los Gatos to see the laser TV for themselves.

Jansson is a bit of a snob about other 3-D technologies, and he said a third motivation for coming out of stealth is to counter the perception that 3-D is a “cheap trick,” given current systems give something closer to “two-and-a-half-D.”

As for Chris and my impressions of the TV? Well, it was pretty awesome. We watched a wide variety of content, from animation to sports to refurbished classic films to a 3-D home movie to games. The action popped out of the immense screen and immersed us in each clip. When confetti rained down and a sharp object approached, I definitely flinched. The experience made us realize, though, that in addition to HDI and others making the watching experience enjoyable, there needs to be an awful lot of work done to make good 3-D content. Even the best display in the world can’t overcome that problem.

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