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Optics Playing a Large Role in Handset Innovation: Glasses Free 3D on Your Handset

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Who says 3D has to be viewed only through funky eyeglasses? In what promises to be hailed as a major technological breakthrough, hardware developers have created a technology that allows smartphone and hand held device users to view movies, games, and other media content in 3D—with only the naked eye.

The Barcelona Consumer Electronics Show

The new 3D optic technology frequently referred to as ‘pico-projectors’ is not yet commercially available, but it was unveiled in prototype form to much enthusiasm at the 2011 Barcelona Consumer Electronics Show. The 3D functionality of the devices varies; the LG Optimus Pad, for example, can capture 3D video content via two rear-facing cameras, but it can’t actually play videos in 3D. LG’s Optimus 3D smartphone, meanwhile, can play both 3D YouTube videos and 3D video games, but it does not capture original 3D video content. In LG’s case, the two devices are supposed to work as a team: one captures content, the other allows you to view it.

The Exciting New World of Pico-Projectors

However, the existence of the devices, combined with their inherent marketability, is a strong indicator that within a few years, devices that can display and record 3D content simultaneously will undoubtedly be available. After all, necessity is the mother of invention; and what could be more necessary that increased corporate profit margins? Forecasting group Pacific Media Associates predicts a market for 22 million pico-projectors by 2014. On the scale of hand held devices, this is not an especially groundbreaking number: over 1.6 billion hand-held devices are sold annually. However, the innovative potential of the devices may soon become standard technology for new smartphones.

The Technical Breakdown

Texas Instruments provides the digital light projection pico chips that enable the 3D experience. The turning point in the development of the chips has been the ability to provide much brighter images while consuming much less power, which makes the display of 3D imagery on smartphones a feasible reality. The Pico chips work with a series of MEMS-based mirrors that help project the image onto the nearest surface. These mirrors are provided by STMMicroelectronics.

The Future of Optics?

The complexity of the new 3D hand held devices may provide an opportunity for other innovative lens makers to enter the market. Liquid lenses in particular may become a larger part of hand held devices. Liquid lenses use a technology known as ‘electrowetting,’ which does not use any moving parts. This allows the lenses to change focus and direction with the same rapid motion as the human eye. Other optical features include an image-stabilizing lens that automatically compensates for the slight shaking of human hands when taking pictures with a hand held device.

Viewed on a larger scale, each of these new optical breakthroughs is notable because they are studies in speed, lower power usage, and flexibility. As smartphones go through more generations, consumers demand increasingly sophisticated features and performance. The treat of being able to view 3D is a feature that will undoubtedly enable far more elegant optical technology to gain a foothold in the marketplace.

This is a guest post by Sara Roberts writes for Just Eyewear, an online retailer of prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses.

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