Toshiba’s Glasses-Free 3-D Panel: Worth the Wait?

At CEATEC 2011, Asia’s biggest consumer electronics show held here this week, Toshiba Corp. unveiled two glasses-free 3-D TV models, challenging the current practice of forcing consumers to wear special glasses when watching 3-D TV.

Although many consumer electronics manufacturers, including Sony, are believed to be working on “glasses-less” 3-D TV technologies, all are keeping mum on their progress.

Toshiba decided to steal the 3-D-crazed industry’s thunder at CEATEC, showing 20- and 12-inch glasses-free LCD 3-D TV sets, both scheduled to launch here in December. Toshiba also demonstrated a 56-inch LCD TV prototype and another 3-D TV model that requires no special glasses. Toshiba has no immediate plans to introduction the 56-inch model.

In an interview with EE Times, Yuzo Hirayama, chief research scientist at multimedia laboratory of Toshiba’s corporate R&D center, said: “Our management has decided that there is no reason to keep the fruits of our research results hidden in our lab. If we know it works, they said, we should get it out there as commercial products.” Hirayama has been working on glasses-free 3-D TV technologies since 2005.

The use of a lenticular lens system is a well-understood principal for those who want to build an auto-stereoscopic high-definition 3-D TV that doesn’t need special glasses. That’s exactly what Toshiba did.

To some, 3-D TVs that don’t require glasses is a non-starter since the technology has been plagued with two well-known problems: lousy resolution and limited viewing angle. However, Toshiba claims to have solved some of these problems.

The demonstration showed that Toshiba’s new 3-D TV has a viewing angle of about 40 degrees. If viewers step out of that boundary, they see doubled images on a screen. Hirayama, however, noted that the viewing angle in the conventional glasses-free 3-D TV was about 20 degrees. “We doubled the viewing angle by developing special software to optimize light emission from the center, right and left of the screen.”

Toshiba made two crucial innovations in terms of the resolution delivered by its own glasses-free 3-D TVs: An engineering team developed a special panel technology; and several LSIs designed to do multi-parallax conversion were integrated with Toshiba’s Cell processor engine.

Special Panel Technology
Toshiba developed a special high-definition, LED-backlit LCD panel packed with 8.29 million pixels. “That’s about four times the pixels used in a full HD panel,” Hirayama explained. The new high-definition panel can produce the final 3-D image at a 1280 x 720 resolution, Hirayama noted, when deployed in Toshiba’s 21-inch glasses-less 3-D TV. The panel also uses 1,440 LEDs positioned directly under the LCD panel to brighten 3-D images.

When compared with a 1920 x 1080 resolution reproduced on a regular large-screen 3-D TV with glasses, Toshiba’s approach, at 1280 x 720, still falls short in terms of resolution. Still, Toshiba’s glasses-less 3-D TV looks far better than other conventional glasses-free 3-D TVs.

Beyond packing more pixels into its LCD panel, Toshiba engineers also arranged each pixel to support the display of RGB in a layout expressly designed for 3-D imaging. By systematically aligning pixels and adopting a perpendicular lenticular sheet, Toshiba’s LCD panel eliminates “blurring” – a vertical wavy pattern caused by interference in the cycle – often observed in conventional 3-D technology without glasses.

Toshiba’s 3-D panel displayed much better images compared to Sharp’s 3.8- and 10.6-inch 3-D LCD panels that require no special glasses. Sharp’s 3-D LCD modules, also demonstrated here, showed annoying vertical wavy patterns. Sharp is a supplier of a LCD panel for Nintendo's upcoming 3-D handheld.

Toshiba collaborated on 3-D panel development with Toshiba Mobile Display Co. subsidiary that is focused on small to medium-sized LCD displays. Toshiba declined to identify its partner for its 56-inch glasses-free 3-D TV prototype.

Heavy-duty Post Processing
At the heart of Toshiba’s 3-D technology is an integral imaging system and a perpendicular lenticular sheet to display natural images, according to Toshiba. Toshiba’s image processing technology creates nine parallax images from the original content to deliver 3-D images.

Hirayama said Toshiba engineers developed several special LSIs to accomplish various parts of image post processing. “In principle, what such LSIs have to do is to take 2-D image, estimate its depth and create nine images from nine directions to deliver 3-D images,” he said.

The custom chips are now part of Toshiba’s new Cell Regza Engine, which serves as the heart of Toshiba’s new 20-inch 3-D TV requiring no glasses.

Those hoping to see Toshiba’s glasses-free 3-D TV demonstration had to wait a minimum of 90 minutes. Was it worth the wait? Based on a string of earlier disappointments, the answer is yes. For consumers waiting to buy a 3-D TV, they wait for Toshiba’s glasses-less 3-D TV will be even longer.

At a time when many consumers are already exposed to a slew of large-screen 3-D TV models, Toshiba’s 12- and 20-inch 3-D TV, even without glasses, may seem a little underwhelming. Toshiba Mobile Display has no plans to develop big-screen LCDs, so finding a large-screen LCD panel partner is a must for Toshiba if it plans to offer its glasses-less 3-D TV to the market.

Price remains a big issue. It will cost roughly $1,400 for the 12-inch model and $2,800 for 20-inch model. Hence, Toshiba must figure out how to improve its 3-D architecture in order to reduce panel production costs.

Toshiba may also have to decide sooner rather than later whether it should allow its chip division to sell or license Cell engines to other OEMs. For now, Toshiba has no answers to these questions.

By Junko Yoshida, EE Times