The first time I saw the glasses-free 3D technology from a company called MasterImage 3D, it was in the form of a smartphone-sized screen mounted in a little box full of circuit boards. 3D skeptic though I am, I was kind of impressed: at its best, the effect looked as good as much of the 3D that requires you to wear funny glasses.
MasterImage 3D visited TIME’s San Francisco office today with another demo unit. This one was a 10″ Android tablet, based on a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. And while it wasn’t a product that’s for sale — it’s just a reference design designed to show hardware makers what’s possible — I was impressed all over again.
The company’s technology is known as cell matrix parallax barrier, and it involves a layer on the LCD screen with barriers that let each of your eyes see a slightly different image. MasterImage 3D says that its system involves larger gaps between the barriers than competing approaches to glasses-free 3D, permitting a brighter image with no ghosting effect. I watched the trailers for Hugo and The Amazing Spider-Man and checked out a game and other samples, and as long as I was careful to hold the tablet at just the right angle, the 3D was surprisingly crisp and subtle. (I did notice a blocky pixelation effect from time to time; according to MasterImage 3D, that’s because the tablet is an alpha product that hasn’t been fully optimized.)
Cell matrix parallax barrier screens work best for small displays, which is why MasterImage 3D is focusing on tablets and phones rather than PCs, TVs and other big-screen gadgets. It’s working with chipmakers such as Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, LCD manufacturers and other component providers to make its 3D screens available to phone and tablet companies; it hopes that phones will reach consumers by the end of this year, with tablets following in the first quarter of 2013.
I still think of 3D as a gimmicky fad. But if MasterImage 3D’s technology ends up in consumer products and lives up to its potential, it could be a gimmicky fad that’s easy on the eyeballs — not the blurry, headache-inducing mess that I usually find it to be.