Dolby’s Glasses-Free 3D May Be Worth Waiting For

The audio-technology company is demoing a surprisingly impressive approach to 3D.

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At CES last week, my colleague Jared Newman saw a prototype Vizio TV with glasses-free 3D. When he said he found it impressive, I immediately wondered whether it was the same glasses-free 3D I’d seen during a visit to Dolby here in San Francisco the week before.

Dolby’s technology, which it’s working on in collaboration with Philips, delivers the first glasses-free 3D I’ve seen which isn’t dreadful. Actually, it’s much better than I thought TV-sized no-glasses 3D could be — crisp and blur-free at any viewing angle. The depth of field is fairly shallow, but that’s almost a virtue: It leads to a subtle 3D effect that doesn’t feel too gimmicky. And I say all this despite the fact that I’m on record as not really liking 3D TV.

So is Vizio’s pleasing glasses-free 3D the same thing as Vizio’s pleasing glasses-free 3D? Yes and no. I spoke with Dolby’s Roland Vlaicu, who explained to me that Vizio’s 3D TV does incorporate Dolby technology. But Dolby thinks that its technology will benefit from a better 4K, 3D-capable display panel than Vizio used — so Vizio’s prototype isn’t an official Dolby 3D TV, like the hand-built one I saw in San Francisco.

The use of a super-high-resolution 4K panel is one reason why these TVs do high-quality 3D. They’re aiming a separate image at each of your eyes, and with so much resolution, they’ve got enough pixels to create two sharp HD pictures. A glasses-free 3D TV using a 1080p panel couldn’t really do 3D in HD.

The availability of appropriate 4K panels is the biggest reason why both the Vizio set Jared liked and the Dolby one I liked are prototypes rather than actual consumer products. Vlaicu told me that Dolby doesn’t expect TVs based on its technology to ship until next year. (And no manufacturer, including Vizio, has announced that it’s officially doing one.) Even in 2014, Dolby 3D sets might be too pricey for you and me, unless 4K gets much more affordable in the interim. Still, it’s nice to think that glasses-free 3D TV we might actually want to watch isn’t an impossible dream.

Side note: The image at the top of this post, with the rugby player bounding right out of the TV, is from Dolby. The image does not, of course, provide anything like a real sense of what the 3D effect looks like in real life. All 3D TV companies always provide these unrealistic images — here’s Samsung’s and LG’s and Sony’s. I get that 3D is hard to show in 2D, but these images remind me of the sort of TV commercial which must include a disclaimer such as “not a flying toy.”

MORE: The Best Phones and Tablets at CES 2013