Sharp develops a 3D screen for mobile gadgets

The screen will give the illusion of 3D without the need for special glasses

Sharp will launch an LCD panel for mobile devices this year that can show images with the illusion of 3D without requiring viewers to wear special glasses.

To get the 3D illusion viewers must hold the screen about 30 centimeters in front of them -- about the same distance at which a cell phone or digital camera is typically held. If they get the angle right, they will see an image that appears to have depth; if they get it wrong they will see a blurred image that's difficult to decipher.

The screen can be switched between 3D and conventional 2D modes. This is accomplished with a switchable layer inside the screen, called a parallax barrier, that splits light from the screen and directs it towards the right or left eyes when energized.

During demonstrations on Friday the company showed still images and animation on the screens. The animation looked better than the still images, which were blurry in parts.

Perhaps the most impressive demonstration was that of a screen hooked up to an experimental 3D camera. The camera was capturing an image of a model pushing her arms in and out towards the lens and the 3D screen provided a relatively realistic reproduction of the scene.

The panel is the product of just under 20 years of 3D research and development by Sharp. The company has tried to commercialize such displays several times since 2001 but each time they failed to gain widespread acceptance.

Sharp now believes the time and technology are right.

The new touch-sensitive screen is 3.4 inches across the diagonal. It is twice as bright as the 2001 models, and has about four times the resolution.

"We are going to see a shift to 3D applications on mobile terminals," said Yoshisuke Hasegawa, general manager of Sharp's LCD business, at a Tokyo news conference.

Sharp intends to start mass production of the screen sometime in the next six months, said Hasegawa, and hopes it will find a home in all manner of portable electronics products including cameras, smartphones and handheld gaming devices.

Sharp provides LCD panels to Nintendo for use in its DS handheld gaming console so there's an expectation among some that the screen announced Friday will find a home in the upcoming Nintendo 3DS. The 3DS, announced last month, is an upgrade of the DS with a 3D screen and is due out sometime in the next 12 months.

Sharp was careful not to name any potential customers and wouldn't comment when asked directly about a possible deal with Nintendo.

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Martyn Williams

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