Originally created 11/24/03

Laptop offers 3-D vision, without special glasses

Coming soon to a screen close to you: The Invading Laptop from the Third Dimension.

No, it's not a cheesy movie. Sharp is introducing a $3,300 computer with a screen that creates the illusion of 3-D vision, without special glasses or other gimmicks.

Remarkably, it actually works. The screen on the Sharp's Actius RD3D looks like a perfectly normal laptop LCD until the "3-D" button is pressed. Then, if you're using applications or games that simulate three dimensions, the screen appears to deepen. The effect is startling, even slightly disconcerting. A close-up of a heap of popcorn looked so real once that I was tempted to touch it, only to find my fingers hitting the flat glass of the LCD.

Sharp is positioning the Actius, a heavy, fully featured laptop, as a tool for architects, engineers, and chemists who need to work on 3-D objects, but some gamers are no doubt going to be tempted by the technology.

It's been possible to see 3-D on computer screens before, with special glasses connected by a cable to the computer. The screen on Sharp's Actius eliminates the glasses, but it imposes limitations of its own. The viewer has to keep his head in a particular spot for optimal 3-D effect, and only one person will see proper 3-D at a time.

Also the 15-inch screen darkens considerably when the effect is activated, and a faint overlay of vertical lines muddies the image somewhat.

Here's how it works. A typical laptop screen consists of two layers: an image-forming liquid-crystal layer and a light-emitting layer behind it. Sharp's technology adds a layer between them, which is transparent when the 3-D effect is off.

When the user hits the "3-D" button, the middle layer turns into a fine pattern of alternating black and white vertical bars. The black bars block the light from the backlight at some angles, meaning the screen can present different images to the right and left eyes.

The principle is not unlike the one used in 3-D postcards, the kind that use a thick, ribbed plastic layer over the image to show different images to the eyes. But by cleverly putting the 3-D controlling layer behind the image, Sharp has created a much more realistic effect. Also, the ability to turn the effect off is pretty crucial - legibility of plain text suffers quite a bit when 3-D is on.

So what's all this magic good for? Well, the Actius comes with a program that shows molecular structures in 3-D, sure to be useful to some chemists and pharmaceutical researchers.

Sharp's Ian Matthew, possibly the world's only "3-D business development manager," says the screen will also work with some 3-D modeling programs used by architects and designers, but I didn't try this myself.

The screen's extra dimension may help in designing 3-D objects, but its greatest use will probably be in presentations, for the sheer wow factor and sense of presence it gives. A program that comes with the computer can be used to make 3-D PowerPoint presentations.

Then there's games. Most of today's games simulate a 3-D world on a regular screen. Remarkably, they will be in true 3-D on Sharp's screen without any further modification.

This adds a bit of realism to games, but the effect is quite subtle. The main reason is that human depth perception is only effective up to about 18 feet. For anything further away, we use other cues, like size, to "see" distance. In most popular shooting games, the action takes place further away, so the 3-D effect is quite small. Running a flight simulator in 3-D is pointless, since the landscape is too far away. There is a list of games that have been tested for 3-D effects at http://www.sharp3d.com/partners/nvidia.asp.

The screen can also show astonishing 3-D photos. To create ones yourself, shoot two pictures of the same subject with a digital camera, moving the camera slightly between the shots. Software on the Actius will turn the images into one 3-D shot. It's tricky to get it right, but stereoscopic photography has been around for more than 100 years in different forms, so there's a large body of knowledge to rely on.

The Actius also has 3-D movie player software, but there is little to play on it besides demos. Sharp's Matthew says other companies are planning 3-D DVDs, but unfortunately it's mostly theme-park thrill-ride movies.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who would love to see Vincent Price glowering out of the screen in "House of Wax" from the 1950s 3-D fad, but it's going to take more than one laptop to get Hollywood interested in putting out 3-D DVDs.

Sharp of course hopes its technology will become a standard, and they may have a shot at it. They're planning to put 3-D screens in other laptop models, and even desktop flat-panel monitors starting next year.

The 3-D layer does add a little weight and thickness to a screen, but with volume production, the added cost would only be in the tens of dollars, according to Matthew. The added power consumption is negligible.

Apart from the screen, the Actius RD3D is a fairly standard high-end laptop in the "desktop replacement" category. At 10.2 pounds, its not something you want to carry far, and the battery only lasts about 1 hour and 20 minutes.

It has a 2.8 GHz Pentium processor, loads of memory, a big hard drive, a DVD burner and every other possible amenity for a laptop except built-in wireless networking. For now, at least, it is sold only through Sharp's Web site and some corporate channels.

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