Glasses-free 3-D technology is gradually morphing from gimmicky to reality.

Anyone happy with the way 3-D TV has been developing is an optimist. A lack of compelling content is easily the biggest problem, but a close second is that viewers have to wear glasses to get the best 3-D experience.

Glasses-free (autostereoscopic) 3-D TV has been demonstrated, but it has limitations that compromise it as a practical solution for the consumer market – at least for now. Proponents expect that improving the technology and losing the clunky glasses will go a long way to help 3-D migrate from the theater to the living room.

3-DDriven by advancing new technologies from companies such as Stream TV Networks and its Ultra-D, and with commitments from powerful TV manufacturers Toshiba and Sony, the glasses-free 3-D TV (GF 3D) model is gaining momentum, albeit with some complex challenges blurring its path into consumers’ homes.

“No doubt, glasses-free 3-D is the Holy Grail,” said Michelle Abraham, principal analyst for the research firm In-Stat. “Everyone wants to get there. First there will be a price point with consumers, like HD. And some people are very sensitive to the flicker and motion. Having no glasses would help that.”

Getting there is the problem, she maintained. “For now, we think 3-D TV will be an occasion, and not regularly watched, and it has value for digital signage and commercials. But it does draw people into the story, and that’s big for the creative content community. It’s certainly very promotable from a CE perspective, but not so much for service providers. However, there’s no question – based on movies – that consumers enjoy 3-D content.”

But can the 3-D movie experience in theaters be duplicated in consumers’ homes, even without 3-D glasses? Probably not, industry experts concede.

“Consumers have great experiences with 3-D in theaters. They love the sense of immersion and all say they don’t like the glasses. The living room is a whole different place. Trying to duplicate the 3-D theater experience is difficult,” admitted Heidi Hoffman, managing director of the 3D@Home Consortium, which includes as members cable, satellite and other service providers.

Hoffman noted that cable operators and other like-minded service providers are exploring GF 3D technology.

“They’re taking 3-D content and delivering it to living rooms. But they are also asking, ‘Where is the business model?’ And TV manufacturers admit they can’t do it alone. They need a common language and a glossary to talk about 3-D TV. But they all believe 3-D glasses will go away. That’s the goal.”

The goal for cable operators such as Cox Communications is to better understand GF 3D technology and just how it fits into their business plans.

“We have an advantage of delivering 3-D versus over-the-top, so that is interesting, and we would like to do glasses-free 3-D in the home. We’re in the process of evaluating the availability of content and talking with suppliers about controlling signal content to auto switch to 3-D mode. We consider 3-D as a possible differentiator,” said Lisa Pickelsimer, executive director of video product development for Cox.

Lisa PickelsimerYet there are nagging questions about GF 3D technology and other serious adoption issues, she noted.

“There are things that limit glasses-free 3-D adoption, like viewing range, lack of content, price points, bandwidth, lack of standards, and is there a TV guide for 3-D titles? When a bunch of consumers buy the technology and interest in 3-D grows, that will raise our interest.”

The interest in revolutionizing 3-D technology, most notably losing the 3-D glasses, has never been higher in the fifty-plus years since 3-D first dazzled theater audiences.

Buoyed by the “Avatar effect,” companies such as Stream TV Networks, with the growing number of 3-D movies in theaters, are betting heavily on GF 3D technology.

Stream TV’s Ultra-D technology, for example, allows real-time conversion of 2-D to 3-D, with or without glasses, and works with several content formats, including cable and satellite.

“It’s more a solution created by working with the lens setting on the panel. It’s like 3-D in the real world but breaks into fragments on the screen, with algorithms giving the information. You see depth through the fragments, so it’s a more natural, comfortable viewing experience,” explained Raja Rajan, COO for Stream TV.

Top View

The company’s converter box, called seeCube, converts various types of content into autostereoscopic 3-D.

“We have an adjustment feature that [gives] viewers control on the remote. Similar to adjusting brightness, you can make the front image pop out either more or less. And you can adjust it in-home. SeeCube plugs into the TV, and everything you’ve watched in 2-D can be seen in 3-D, without the glasses,” Rajan said.

TV manufacturer Toshiba’s autostereoscopic TV is expected to hit the U.S. market this year. Its technology uses face tracking to fine-tune the 3-D experience for up to nine people.

But some remain skeptical, suggesting that GF 3D and other 3-D technologies that are being touted are simply “gimmicky.”

One industry technology expert referring to the Toshiba approach said: “This technology just adds an icon that diverts viewers to the sweet spot, but it doesn’t solve the problem, just where to move the chair. We’ll see glasses-free 3-D when we see theaters without glasses. Steerable 3-D TV has promise, along with developing holographic displays or rotating screens that can be viewed at different angles.”

3D Viewing CyclesRajan conceded that there is a gimmicky component to 3-D that must be eliminated.

“Historically, 3-D has been a gimmick, with things jumping out at you. It’s been just one more special effect. Now we have a device that can be integrated into the TV and set-top box. It’s like the chip inside the set-top. But you must have a 3-D TV.”

You’re also going to need an open mind about GF 3D.

Concluded Rajan: “Unfortunately, the problem goes deeper than glasses. Because 3-D is seen first in theaters, the expectations are for effects, and those can’t be duplicated in the home with action films. Glasses compound the problem and are an annoyance.”

RealD, a potential player in the GF 3D space, is considering GF 3D technology once it moves through the gimmicky stage.

“You must get glasses-free TV right because it can be a lesser experience than 2-D if it isn’t. It can work on smaller screens and is still a little gimmicky, so it’s not there yet. But it will be,” said Rick Heineman, a spokesman for RealD.

Just when glasses-free 3-D TV becomes a household name will depend on price points, viewing angles and consumers being convinced that 3-D is reality – not gimmicky.