Flashback: The Multiple Times 3D Phones Failed to Latch On


After a 13 year hiatus Avatar is back in theaters – the original film revolutionized the industry and transformed 3D from a gimmick into a must-have for every blockbuster. But what happened once a 3D movie left the big screen and was released on Blu-ray? The growing popularity of 3D movies has created a need for TVs that can play them from the comfort of your home.

Except this version of events doesn’t tell the whole story, 3D is way older than Avatar. Seriously, the first color movie was released in 1908, the first stereoscopic 3D movie was released in 1922 (or maybe earlier). However, until James Cameron’s movie, 3D was just an occasional gimmick that was revived and quickly forgotten many times over the years. And while 3D movies in theaters are still the norm, they’re moving to two-dimensional for home release.

The charitable interpretation is that the 3D effect really benefits from a larger screen, while even larger home TVs don’t see enough benefit. But if the 3D effect isn’t worth it on a 40+ inch TV, what chance does it have of succeeding on a screen you can fit in your pocket? (the less charitable interpretation is that 3D tickets cost more, by the way)

Phones with 3D screens predate the upheaval that Avatar caused in Hollywood. UK publication The Guardian has an article from 2002 titled The Return of 3D – this wasn’t the last series of fancy 3D horror films (of which there was no shortage), this was the very first phone with a 3D screen.

This phone was the Sharp mova SH251iS for NTT DoCoMo and while it was only available in Japan, The Guardian found it interesting because the screen technology was developed by a British team. It was an autostereoscopic display, meaning you didn’t need glasses to see the 3D effect, however, it only worked from a specific vantage point.

The Sharp mova SH251iS is so old we couldn't even find a good picture of it
The Sharp mova SH251iS is so old we couldn’t even find a good picture of it

If you have experience with this type of display, chances are it’s from a Nintendo 3DS. However, the 3DS didn’t come out until 2010 – Sharp (as always) was ahead of the curve. We have to admit that the title of the article made us laugh, even in 2002 the attitude towards 3D was “ugh, it’s back”.

The Nintendo 3DS probably has the most popular autostereoscopic screen on the market
The Nintendo 3DS probably has the most popular autostereoscopic screen on the market

Anyway, while the Brits figured out how to build a 3D display, making a 3D camera was still an open question. The Sharp phone only had one camera, so to take a 3D image you had to take a photo, move slightly to the side and take a second photo. Then the software would merge the two into a side-by-side 3D image visible on the phone’s screen…and possibly on any other screen you had. Or that your friends had, unless they also bought a mova SH251iS.

This means that the very first phone with a 3D screen faced the same problem as other 3D phones to come – you can view 3D content on the phone and nowhere else. Want to view a photo on your computer? Unless you have specific hardware, you can only get a 2D image. Ditto for viewing it on your television or printing it (remember, that was in 2002).

Flashback: 3D phones

You can use a cheap pair of red-cyan glasses and special software to display 3D images on a 2D screen. Except those cheap glasses really ruin the colors of the image, which isn’t great for movies or photography. And most image viewers didn’t know what to do with a 3D image anyway, so you had to browse the internet to find something that worked. This was all more complicated than the 3D effect was worth.

Not that the base 0.3MP camera can produce stunning images. And even the phone’s dedicated 3D display wasn’t exactly high quality – a tiny 2.2-inch image with only 65,000 colours.

In 2007 came the Samsung SCH-B710, which solved the camera problem. It had a pair of 1.3MP cameras so you can take a 3D photo with just one click. This also solved the problem of photographing moving objects (the two shots trick won’t work if the subject is moving). The Samsung also used an autostereoscopic display and that wasn’t great either – another tiny 2.2 inch display with a resolution of 240 x 320 pixels (note that this type of display only displays half the resolution to each eye).

The Samsung SCH-B710, note: 3D view only works in one display orientation
The Samsung SCH-B710, note: 3D view only works in one display orientation

There were other models, like the Samsung W960 AMOLED 3D and the Spice M-67 3D from 2010, but they weren’t considered either.


Samsung W960 AMOLED 3D
Spice M-67 3D Model

Samsung W960 AMOLED 3D • Spice M-67 3D

Moving on to the post-Avatar era, which also coincided with the rise of Android, we come to the LG Optimus 3D and HTC EVO 3D. These are probably the phones you thought of when reading the title.

Flashback: 3D phones

They might not have been the first, but they had the best chance of making 3D work. They had large screens, both 4.3-inches and were pretty sharp – 480 x 800 pixels on the LG, 540 x 960 pixels on the HTC. And they also had better quality cameras, a pair of 5MP sensors on each phone.

Flashback: 3D phones

We believe that the “smartphone” aspect was more important as well as the evolution of the Internet. Application stores have made it easy to download applications such as, for example, an image viewer that supports red-cyan glasses for your friends and family without a 3D phone. Plus, sharing photos on the Internet was easier than ever. So what was wrong this time?

First, let us show you some examples of 3D cameras. Notice the problem? No matter what browser you are using, it does not support side-by-side 3D format. There used to be a site that supported various 3D displays as well as 2D displays + glasses, but that service died out years ago.


Side-by-side 3D photos of the LG Optimus 3D
Side-by-side 3D photos of the LG Optimus 3D
Side-by-side 3D photos of the LG Optimus 3D
Side-by-side 3D photos of the LG Optimus 3D

Side-by-side 3D photos of the LG Optimus 3D

YouTube still supports 3D which is interesting, here is an example video:

And even if you were a 3D enthusiast who enjoyed the added depth of these images, it was hard to share these images with your family and friends unless they were equally enthusiastic. Perhaps if 3D televisions had become popular, and then PC monitors and laptop screens started to support 3D, things would have been different.

This brings us back to our starting point: the 3D effect is simply not worth it on small screens.

So, is this the end of 3D phones? Or is there a chance they’ll make another comeback? The truth is that they never left, there are still new 3D phones (and even 3D tablets) coming out. It’s just that they fly so low under the radar that you probably never knew they existed.

The Elephone P11 3D is from 2019
The Elephone P11 3D is from 2019

Either way, we think 3D screens are best left in the past. A 3D photo is quite static, even a 3D video has a fixed perspective. Virtual reality is the “next big thing”, it allows you to look around freely and with the most advanced headsets you can even move around the scene. It’s everything 3D wanted to be, but better. Virtual reality games are slowly but steadily gaining popularity and virtual reality has found many applications in professional settings.

Flashback: 3D phones

Smartphones also had a chance to be part of the virtual reality market – remember Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR and all the other similar attempts? Maybe these came out too early, before there was enough great content to check out. And maybe there will be a resurgence after Sony’s PSVR2 launches (early next year) and Apple finally ships its own headset. And, of course, Meta pours billions into the Metaverse. But even if VR phone kits return, we bet 3D phones never will.

PS. Like 3D, virtual reality has been around longer than you might have imagined. But he hasn’t had his Avatar moment.

Tech

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
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