October 12, 2003 9:00 PM PDT

Sharp launches 3D notebook

Sharp has released a notebook with a 3D screen that the company hopes will usher in a new way of looking at computers.

The Actius RD3D comes with a specialized 15-inch screen with a so-called parallax barrier that lets people view 3D images or run 3D applications without special glasses. For example, bodies and bullets appear to fly all over the place in a version of popular game "Quake" that has been adjusted to work on Sharp's 3D monitors.

The notebook also comes with a software bundle from Dynamic Digital Depth (DDD) that can give flat applications, videos and pictures a three-dimensional look on the fly.

"You can scan in images of famous artwork, like the Mona Lisa, and suddenly make a 3D version of it," said Chris Yewdall, chief executive of DDD.

 Bringing 3D viewing to the computing world has been a longtime goal for the industry. Several companies have come out with Web browser software and other technology that make images appear to pop off the screen, but the Web largely remains a two-dimensional world--albeit populated with images that are drawn in 3D perspective to make them appear more realistic.

To help jump-start the market, Sharp, Sony and others formed a group earlier this year, called the 3D Consortium to hammer out standards for 3D displays and to examine issues, such as eyestrain, that may hamper adoption.

NTT DoCoMo already sells phones containing a small 3D screen from Sharp based on the same technology. Sharp has been showing prototypes of the Actius RD3D since late last year.

Enhancing displays is at the core of the Japanese giant's strategy. Sharp, which reported a $557 million profit in fiscal 2002, is one of the leaders in the market for thin-film transistor (TFT) displays, glass with embedded electronics used to build liquid-crystal display (LCD) screens. The company has a major presence in the LCD monitor market in Europe and Japan.

Sharp's notebooks, in fact, are primarily a vehicle to show off the company's displays. The Actius MM10--which was shown off at Comdex Fall 2002 under its Japanese name Muramasa--is about half an inch thick and weighs just over 2 pounds, a design made possible in part because of the screen. The company also has released notebooks with wide displays.

Sharp said it is considering bringing out 3D desktop LCD monitors. Toshiba is working on a similar 3D monitor, according to sources close to the company.

Eyeing big business
Although the consumer market seems like a natural fit, the Actius RD3D will initially be aimed at the business market. Engineers, product designers, pharmaceutical companies, and oil and gas researchers, in particular, will be targeted. A molecular modeling application comes with the notebook.

The software bundle from DDD will allow consumers to view materials in 3D, even if the original developers do not tweak their applications. The DDD bundle consists of three parts: TriDef Movie Player for making 3D video, Photo Viewer for digital images, and Visualizer software for simulating 3D on standard applications. The DDD software essentially works by intercepting the original code and re-rendering it.

"You've got a lot of (software) customers out there who are very interested, but you have a lack of 3D displays out there," DDD's Yewdall said.

Screens that can show 3D images will likely be a niche, but the technology will have its adherents. "There are some applications where it will be useful: medical, imaging, gaming," said Alan Promisel, an analyst with IDC. Some have said that there are nearly 1,000 games that have been 3D-optimized, he said.

The notebook can be switched to two-dimensional viewing, according to Sharp, so that it can also run spreadsheets and other applications in which 3D would likely be an annoyance.

The RD3D's monitor can be thought of as a TFT sandwich. The monitor, developed by Sharp and Sharp Laboratories Europe, contains two TFT panels separated by a parallax barrier, which directs pixel images to two separate regions so that each eye receives a slightly different image. Like in commercially available holograms that display 3D images, faint vertical lines appear on the screen.

"The left eye sees only the left-eye image, and the right eye sees only the right-eye image," Ian Matthew, a development manager at Sharp Systems of America, said in a statement. "Since these images have perspective and are offset in the same way that the human eye normally sees the two images, the brain naturally interprets the image disparity and creates a 'sense of depth' effect."

The notebook is not priced for bargain hunters. It costs $3,299 and comes with a 2.8GHz Pentium 4, a Nvidia GeForce 4 440 graphics chip, a recording DVD drive, a 60GB hard drive and 512MB of memory.

 

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