R2D2's three-dimensional projections are no longer just for the movies. A group of researchers from Hewlett Packard Laboratories has developed glasses-free, multi-perspective, three-dimensional display technology for mobile devices, as reported in this week's Nature.
While various forms of 3D imagery are making progress — 3D movie quality is improving, 3D for gaming systems enhances play — none allow for multiple perspectives. That is, current 3D glasses enable your left eye and right eye to see two different images and your brain creates one 3D image. Similarly, Nintendo's 3D technology uses screen lenses to direct separate images to the right and left eye when users stand in specific places in relation to the screen.
The new HP development, called Multi-Directional Backlight Technology, allows users to see 3D images of the object from multiple angles. For example, viewers can walk around a projected 3D face and see many perspectives from the left ear, to the nose and eyes, all the way around to the right ear.
"What we do is produce many more different, independent images in different regions of space, so that at any viewpoint the viewer will receive different images with his right and left eye, allowing the 3D effect to persist as you move your head around the display," said David Fattal, principal scientist at Hewlett Packard.
"So in a sense it's very similar to what you see in movies like "Star Wars" or "Iron Man" that have little holograms and you can move around and they don't disappear as you move around." (In a video, Fattal's team tilts a prototype screen to show the HP logo and an image of flowers from multiple angles.)
Fattal and his team developed their new technology with mobile devices in mind. With previous 3D tech, the effect diminishes as viewers get closer to the screen. Fattal's technology is intended for close viewing. And the enhanced perspective capabilities that allow viewers to move around the visualization or tilt the device projecting it, is particularly well suited for tablets and phones.
While static 3D images produced through this technology could be commercially available in as little as one year, active modulations — moving 3D displays — still require significant development. A big first step is creating display components small enough to fit into a mobile device.
Fattal has big plans for the future. "Imagine a system of windows where the windows are floating with different depths in front of you and you could have a clever touch or hand- recognition user interface that lets you interact with the 3D objects," Fattal said. [See also: Video Games Improve Surgeons' Skills ]
If that becomes possible, Fattal said, the technology could be used for things as advanced as remote surgery, whereby surgeons could remotely operate tools while looking at a 3D representation of their patient. "It sounds futuristic," Fattal said. "But it's a very serious and useful thing that this technology could enable."