Active Retarder - Dead or Alive?

In the 3DTV space, the debate still rages over the merits of shutter glasses vs. passive polarized glasses using Film Pattern Retarder (FPR) technology. While Samsung was singing the praises of shutter glasses, it also had a plan to offer a passive polarized solution in partnership with RealD. Now, the future of this approach is clouded since RealD revealed that its deal with Samsung to manufacture the panels will not go forward.

Active retarder technology is a way to create passive polarized 3D viewing on a flat panel display. It does this by bonding an additional LCD panel to the main imaging panel, instead of bonding a FPR polarizer sheet, which is the approach favored by LG Display. The main advantage of the active retarder approach is the ability to deliver the full native resolution of the panel to each eye in 3D mode. The main disadvantage is the cost and weight of the second LCD panel.

The technology was first shown several years ago at SID by LG Display. At the same time, it also showed its film patterned retarder technology. Subsequently, LG Display slowed down active retarder development and focused on FPR technology, which was introduced into TVs one year ago. Since then, it has seen tremendous success with many brands adopting and doing well selling the approach.

Meanwhile, RealD and Samsung partnered to show prototypes of active retarder TVs (called RDZ by RealD and Active Shutter by Samsung) at CES 2011 and again at SID’11. As we noted in our coverage at the time, the performance was very good and indeed improved by SID. At that time, we were told that Samsung would offer active shutter monitors by the end of 2011 and move into TV production in 2012.

When we asked about the extra cost of the active shutter panel, RealD acknowledged it was an issue but implied they had a plan that would make this a cost affordable component.

So what happened? According to an engadget article, RealD CEO Michael Lewis told reporters that the Korean manufacturer simply "had a recent management change, reviewed all their projects and decided not to go forward."

While it is reasonable to assume that Samsung had a strategic review of all display technologies and decided active shutter would not make the cut, there were probably additional factors at play. One was the difficult economic climate that has hurt TV sales and shifted consumer attention to smartphones and tablets. Samsung could easily have seen better return on investment in this area compared to TVs.

Another factor may have been technology. Was the team able to meet their cost and manufacturing targets to offer competitive TVs in the desired timeframe? My guess is that there were indeed some problems in this area and the only practical way to address the cost and weight issues is to create plastic LCD. Commercializing this in monitor and TV sizes is a big challenge and was likely going to require additional investment and time.

And let’s not forget the competitive aspect vs. patterned retarder technology commercialized by LG Display and a host of TV partners. Remember, over the last year, Samsung and LG have slung mud at each other over the image quality of the patterned retarder vs. shutter glass approach. Samsung claims that shutter glasses deliver the full native resolution of the panel per eye whereas FPR delivers only half the vertical resolution per eye. LG says not true, and has backed that up with a series of independent test results that validate the image quality is FHD in 3D mode.

This argument is essentially being settled by consumers who are voting with their purchases. While active shutter sets continue to increase in sales, film patterned retarder sales have come on strongly in the last year. Some brands are now converting their lines from shutter glasses to all film patterned retarder models. While the active retarder approach can deliver FHD per eye, the image quality - and tricks that LG plays with film patterned retarder, is very close to FHD per eye, so the advantage is minimized.

Finally, 3DTV is not as hot as it once was with Connected/Internet/Smart TVs likely to create more excitement with consumers in the near term.

Putting it all together, arguments that made sense 1-2 years ago, don’t seem to make as much sense today. It may be all of these, and possibly some other reasons, why Samsung pulled the plug on active shutter.

Lewis noted that RealD remains "bullish on the technology" and will explore opportunities with "other potential partners." In addition, AUO is now active in the space. At FPD International they debuted a surprise product - a 46-inch 3DTV using a scanning retarder approach.

So is the technology dead or alive? I guess I will leave it to you to judge for yourself.

By Chris Chinnock, Display Daily