Am I the only person still unpacking from CES? In the scramble that seems almost inevitable to ferret out the big stories from CES -- hi def DVD format war, Apple's non-presence presence, portable video, SED arriving -- lots of other stuff gets overlooked. After all, this was a very big convention with over 150,000 attendees.
Top on my list of overlooked stories is 3-D. Yes, they're still selling those funny looking 3-D goggles with separate, small LCD screens for each eye, as video games accessories. But despite the theatrical 3-D successes of "The Polar Express" last year and "Chicken Little" this year, the consensus seems to be that after more than a decade of LCD gadget goggles, and five decades of polarized-lens movie sunglasses, eyewear is probably not the future of three-dimensional television.
What is? Well I'm unpacking a chachka (convention slang for a free giveaway) that I got from NTT Cyber Space Laboratories. It attempts to simulate a fantastic new type of 3-D video screen I saw a demo of, using two pieces of printed-on plastic, spaced a quarter-inch apart.
The working demo had two LCD screens, spaced less than an inch apart, so one is in front and one in rear. The front screen is see-through, so that when it's dimmed all you see is the rear. By varying how much of the image is sent to the front screen and how much to the back, objects could be placed at a variety of apparent depths.
What's amazing about this process is that it creates the illusion of in-between depths, using a mix of the front screen and the rear. Much like the way a pair of stereo speakers can create the auditory illusion that sound is coming from a point in between, likewise with front and rear screens.
The little plastic model I have, showing three cars at near, middle, and far depth, requires holding at a very precise angle to see it right. I completely forgot how the actual working LCD unit got around this problem. But I do remember that there was something right about this technology that seemed superior to the parallex-based 3-D LCD screens that Sharp and others have introduced.
Sharp has been selling notebook computers with parallex-based screens for a couple of years now. Yes, they work, yes they don't require special glasses, but there's something funny about the way they look, maybe it has something to do with how widely spaced your eyes are, or from the very fact that each eye is actually receiving a different image. I don't know.
But this NTT see-through front screen feels much calmer to look at. A quick search of their web site did not turn up a name for this technology -- just a five year old press release outlining the technology, calling it, "A New 3-D Perception Mechanism", and a mission statement that says, "We are pursuing communication with highly realistic sensation, based on technology for 3-D displays which do not require the use of 3-D glasses."
Two final thoughts: By turning up the brightness of the front image and turning off the rear, it becomes perfectly compatible with regular two dimensional source materials, too. And if SED really blows away LCD as some expect, perhaps LCD will find new life in three-dimensional displays.
Sometimes you go to CES and learn a bunch of new model numbers that will be out next winter. Sometimes you see the battle cries of a format war looming on the horizon. Sometimes you see new technology just as it's transitioning from lab curiosity to mass-market manufacturing. And sometimes you see the future. This year, CES was all of that.