The Shift from 2D to 3D Display Technologies: Hype or (Virtual) Reality?
March 31, 2023
I know 3D display technology has had its skeptics through the decades, and many in the industry have failed in this arena, but I believe 3D display technologies will touch just about every industry, further pushing the boundaries on the human digital experience -- from entertainment to medical, military applications, engineering, graphic design, architecture and more. Much like rotary phones, we will forget that we had 2D displays.
But, I admit we are not quite there…yet. While there has been significant progress in the display itself, we are not where we need to be to create a massive shift from 2D to 3D. For one thing, both the hardware and the software need to be dramatically improved (think energy consumption, massive computing needs, for example). The entire industry needs to adopt this transition -- from hardware to software to chip makers, and everything in between.
We also need higher resolution displays; we need 300 ppi to 500 ppi displays, from small to large sizes, to get the best results. Today, we have high resolution displays, but they tend to be for phones with a notch for the camera or they have to be specially made, which renders them unsuitable for the mass market.
To make really good 3D light field displays, for example, you need large format displays with high resolution, which aren’t easy to come by. Even today, it’s hard to get any better than 8K, which is fine for smaller displays but for an 85” display, even higher resolution is preferred. To clarify, 8K is plenty of resolution for 2D displays, but barely makes it for 3D.
In a future 3D digital world, our TV’s will resemble the theater; the basketball game on TV will resemble that of courtside seats at the arena; the newest shoe or the newest piece of jewelry on a 3D display will resemble what you see in the physical store; flying airplanes during training to performing surgery will be more like the real thing. Our video conferencing will not look like we are talking to small glowing rectangular boxes -- instead it will resemble an actual conference room. (We might even enjoy video calls. Ugh).
There will also be less need for designers to mockup prototype cars made of wood or clay, or for architects to make a model out of Styrofoam because these will look realistic on a 3D display. Rather than walking around the model to get different views, you can rotate the image of the car or building on your 3D display, and multiple viewers can view and offer input.
Today, we have multiple companies chasing this space, including big players.
One example is the world’s first group-viewable 3D holographic displays by Looking Glass. This company, along with other innovators are designing the highest resolution and most realistic experience technically available today.
The entertainment industry is currently the largest draw for 3D displays, followed by enterprise applications like 3D modeling, design, engineering, etc. The next biggest draw will be from brands wanting to showcase their product on a display that best resembles the real thing; the 3D light field display (hologram) does that.
There’s evidence that we are on the right track. The increased market supply and demand for 3D display technologies could breathe a whole new life into the entire display industry. It will impact all display technologies, from LCD to OLED to emerging ones like microLED.
But, like I said, much more innovation needs to happen. Today, everything is 2D and the transformation would mean that the current display hardware must be modified. The good news is that most of the existing infrastructure in terms of the factories, the production lines, the materials, and processes for current display technologies, can be reused. In most cases, you can insert additional films and system designs to make them suitable for 3D. Fortunately, these can be done relatively easily and don’t require massive design changes.
The industry has had to overcome some major hurdles in the ongoing shift to 3D, including:
- Nausea: Since the design was poor, when you moved your head side to side, the image “chopped” and you got a reset of some kind. This issue has been solved by enabling the viewer to see multiple views at the same time, so there is no transition.
- Single viewer: Many camera tracking 3D displays could only enable one person, so with a TV or monitor application where you expect multiple viewers, that does not work. This challenge has been solved with a multi-viewer system where several dozen people could view from a distance.
- Glasses: Most people don't like to wear glasses for extended periods of time unless you are like me. I have been wearing glasses since the fourth grade (I was the only kid with glasses in the entire school). All the new versions of 3D displays are glasses free. We will continue to see improvements in this space.
I’m excited and hopeful about the significant progress being made in the display tech space surrounding 3D. The good news is that the metaverse promoters have a huge appetite for 3D displays, and display makers are gearing up to feed the mass markets. Current products in the market are providing valuable feedback to the entire industry.
Like with previous new technologies, among the display makers, we will have the innovators and the fast followers, the laggards, and alas, some will be left behind. This will be an interesting race to watch - on a direct view, glasses-free display with my prescription glasses on.