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3D gets off to shaky start on mobile


The third dimension has piqued the interest of Hollywood for big-screen productions, but there may be a place for the technology on a much smaller screen – and not necessarily one attached to special headgear or glasses. Early experimentations are underway to bring 3D to mobile phones, but it’s an experience that has a long way to go before it will be in demand, or even consumable.

According to In-Stat’s research, 64% of consumers are at least somewhat interested in 3D content, but on what screens and in what content is less certain as advancements in the technology are only recently popping up. Last week, scotch-tape maker 3M introduced a new optical film that lets consumers view stereoscopic 3D images on mobile devices. The 3D optical film inserted in a phone’s backlight uses two alternate rows of LED lights to project left and right images sequentially into the viewer’s eyes, creating an illusion of 3D and allowing them to switch between 2D and 3D views. Samsung has made similar announcements geared towards TVs that include an enhanced 3D user interface, and Acer launched a laptop using its 3D CineReal technology, although it still requires polarized glasses to achieve the effect.

After 10 years at Microsoft, working on the UI for Xbox, Rob Girling co-founded Artefact, a strategic design and consulting firm, in 2006 to enable next-generation user experiences like these. The firm now works with companies including HTC and Microsoft and is just beginning to explore 3D on mobile. On this platform, 3D comes in three forms, Girling said – 3D inputs, 3D outputs and 3G graphics.

3D inputs, made popular by the Nintendo Wii, are driven by accelerometers in the phone. For example, on Android, users can look at Google Street view in 3D on mobile. Another interesting application of 3D input that hasn’t yet been explored is enabling gesturing to a device. For example, if the next version of Amazon’s Kindle has a camera on it, it could sense a wave of the hand to turn a page or know to rifle through pages when the user walks his fingers across the screen, Girling said.

3D outputs occur when each eye is essentially seeing something different. Through head-tracking, objects are rendered differently based on the position of the viewers head to the camera – much like the poster in Tijuana that depicts Jesus crying when seen from a particular angle. It’s interesting, but not that relevant on mobile, Girling said. What 3M is promising falls into the 3D output model, he said, and the problem with it is that there is a distinct sweet spot. If the user moves her head out of that zone, the illusion is shot. Marketing people will have a heyday with 3D output on mobile, he said, but the experience is still relatively lame.

3D graphics, on the other hand, are quickly becoming a differentiator for gaming, and phones are becoming the gaming platform of choice. Even Apple is slightly shocked by this transition, Girling said. “The games industry has pioneered most 3D technology, graphics engines and things like that, but the games industry is under some pressure,” he said. “They are in mid-transition from being a publishing-dominated industry where the big publishers bless platforms with their content and that gives them a chance with the gaming community to – with the iPhone and the application store – essentially a complete upheaval of that model where small developing companies have a way to get around publishers and get it to consumers directly.”

nVidia, the graphics king from the PC gaming arena, is beginning to bring its Tegra 3D gaming chipset to mobile products, including the Zune HD and Samsung M1. This chipset is a lot more capable than anything Girling has seen, he said.

“From a supply side, companies like nVidia are really making a bet on mobile, meaning that a PC high-end graphic work station is becoming a rarer thing over time,” he said. Feeling pressure from Intel’s integrated chipsets, nVidia is honing on mobile and the proliferation of 3D could be the result. It might not become the norm for interaction or visual designers anytime soon – it is more like two years out as issues around battery drain and user experience are worked out, Girling said, but – if done right – it can yield beautiful and unique digital styles that can be very effective.

“Input technologies like touch and these kinds of 3D input things are incredibly hard to get right,” Girling said. “There is a lot of calibration sensitivity and finessing that goes into making it good and making sure the experience is what users expect. I know that goes without saying, but even if you’re an iPhone developer today, just calibrating the accelerometer to give you a useful input requires a lot of computer science knowledge. The data the accelerometer has given you is very erratic. You have to make sure whatever happens when the accelerometer changes is graceful and not herky-jerky. It is hard to do. To have that acceleration decay with the right amount of inertia so it feels physical. That is hard to tune. It will always be more difficult with 3D to get right than with 2D.”


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