October 4, 2010 5:13 pm

Toshiba unveils glasses-free 3D televisions

Toshiba said it had cleared away one of the biggest obstacles to the spread of 3D television as it unveiled the first sets that do not require users to wear special glasses to view stereoscopic images.

The Japanese group said it would begin selling two small “glasses-less” 3D TVs in Japan in December. It showed the 12- and 20-inch models, as well as a prototype 56-inch version, to journalists ahead of a trade show in Tokyo.

Television manufacturers began offering 3D TVs this year and the technology has been embraced by video game developers and film studios.

Sales of 3D sets could grow from 4m in 2010 to 78m by 2015, or about two-fifths of the projected global flat-screen market, according to iSupply, the research firm.

Even so, many consumers appear to have doubts about the hardware. Half of respondents to a recent survey by Nielsen, the media ratings specialist, said they were turned off by the bulky plastic glasses which control the distribution of images to the viewer’s right and left eye. When those who said they were interested in buying a 3D TV tried one, about half changed their minds.

“If people spend, say, 20 hours a week watching television, the amount of time that they are willing to wear glasses is going to be very limited,” said Masaaki Osumi, head of Toshiba’s visual products business.

Several manufacturers have developed 3D screens that work without glasses by projecting two images at slightly different angles – essentially aiming each image at a different eye.

Nintendo, the Japanese video game company, plans to introduce a no-glasses 3D version of its DS portable game console in February.

But while that technique has worked for tiny screens intended to be viewed at close range by a single user, repeating the trick for televisions has proved difficult.

Toshiba has addressed the issue by developing a high-tech film that it places over the TVs’ liquid-crystal displays. The film breaks up the sets’ 3D images and projects them in nine different “beams”, so they can be watched from many angles. A high-speed image-processing computer adjusts the images to compensate for blurring and other defects.

Toshiba did not announce a price for the televisions or say when they would be available outside Japan.

The company acknowledged the technology is still imperfect. The models on display in Tokyo produced clear, convincing 3D images, but moving sideways caused the picture to fall briefly out of focus between the “beams”, a problem that grows more acute the further the viewer is from the screen.

The models that are to go on sale in December will be too small for most living rooms. Toshiba said it planned eventually to sell larger models but did not yet have a timetable.

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