What Happened to Glasses-Free 3D TV?

Does the bursting of the 3D TV hype bubble spell doom for a glasses-free version?

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

A brisk walk around the show floor at CES last week was all it took to confirm that the 3D TV craze is over. Vendors such as Samsung and Sony no longer thrust 3D glasses in everyone’s faces; most of their television sets weren’t showing 3D video at all. Instead, TV makers fixated on 4K displays, and how wonderful they looked without the assistance of eyewear.

In fairness, 3D TV hasn’t gone away. As Sony Electronics President Phil Molyneux told my colleague Harry McCracken, it’s simply become a default feature¬†embedded in all of the company’s new televisions. (The other way to look at it, of course, is that consumers are getting 3D TV whether they want it or not.) Now that 3D is a standard feature, TV makers are turning their attention to 4K as the next big thing.

I wondered, then, what that meant for glasses-free 3D. At one point it seemed like the next natural step for televisions, but that was while 3D was still in vogue. Does the bursting of the 3D TV hype bubble spell doom for a glasses-free version?

Not quite. I did see a couple of glasses-free 3D technologies at CES this year, and they both looked better than anything I’d seen before. Even so, they’re a long way off from becoming actual products that the average person can afford.

The most impressive effort was a 55-inch, 4K glasses-free 3D TV prototype from Vizio, developed with Dolby and other undisclosed partners. Unlike other glasses-free panels I’ve seen in previous years (like the Toshiba model pictured above), Vizio’s set was comfortable to look at from anywhere, not just from a few specific angles. The TV did have several 3D sweet spots, and apparently the best place to watch was from about five to six feet away, but the effect simply became less pronounced or non-existent at other angles. The video itself remained crisp enough to watch. Although the 3D effect was somewhat mild in my demo, Vizio said users would be able to adjust the amount of 3D pop.

Vizio wouldn’t say too much about the technology inside the TV, but Chief Technology Officer Matt McRae said it uses an “active lenticular” layer to send slightly different images to each eye, just like other glasses-free technology. Vizio’s improvements come partly from software processing, and partly from “trickery” in the television’s refresh rates, McRae said.

If it wanted to, Vizio could ramp up production within six to twelve months, but for now the company has no plans to turn the glasses-free 3D prototype into a commercial product. The main reason Vizio showed the prototype at CES was to gather feedback and decide whether to move forward.

Meanwhile, another company called Stream TV Networks is trying to get its own glasses-free 3D system built into televisions. The so-called Ultra-D technology combines proprietary hardware with an algorithm that converts 2D video to 3D at 4K resolutions. It’s also supposed to work at any viewing angle, eliminating the need to stand in a sweet spot, and lets users adjust the level of the 3D effect.

I watched Stream TV’s demos on several televisions, each with different types of content. The demos were certainly better than earlier attempts at glasses-free 3D, but they were far from perfect. On occasion, I noticed faint lines that seemed to cut through the imagery, and as I moved around, I did find some viewing angles that seemed out of focus. A demo of a first-person shooter game was too jarring to look at for more than a few minutes. It’s possible that the 3D effect needed to be dialed down to my comfort level. One other thing I noticed: Most of Stream TV’s demos involved still images, slow motion or otherwise canned demos, rather than actual movies.

Stream TV’s plan is to work with component suppliers, who will offer glasses-free 3D as a feature for major TV brands. The company has a deal with one such supplier, Pegatron, and Chinese TV maker HiSense has committed to launching televisions with Ultra-D inside.

Keep in mind that both of the technologies I saw made use of 4K televisions, whose price tags run into the five-digit range even without glasses-free 3D. I can’t say I came away from CES feeling like the arrival of glasses-free 3D is imminent, but the prototypes are getting better. Maybe once the obsession with 4K television subsides, glasses-free 3D can be the next next big thing.

MORE: Check out TIME Tech’s complete CES coverage