Apple’s Patent May Unlock 3-D Technology

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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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