Sony Entertainment's Future Includes No More Fights Over 3D Glasses

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As production companies and exhibitors continue to bicker over the cost of the specs, Sony touts in a patent filing one advance in the industry-wide effort to make the glasses disappear forever.

Last week, Sony Pictures and theatrical exhibitors broke into a fight over who would pick up the tab for 3D glasses on Men in Black 3. The film studio eventually backed down after executives at Regal and Cinemark were adamant about not paying 3D technology vendors like RealD.

Meanwhile, the race is on to introduce glasses-free 3D technology that will be a hit among consumers. At the most recent CES, the world's largest consumer technology tradeshow, several companies publicly demonstrated glasses-free 3D for both TVs and mobile devices. Toshiba has already unveiled a glasses-free 3D TV system and recently, a glasses-free 3D laptop, but critics have knocked the high price and the fact that images can appear blurry if the viewer isn't positioned correctly in front of the screen.

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Sony is among the manufacturers working on the issues. In a patent filing that was revealed earlier this month, the company is claiming an apparatus for a glasses-free 3D display that will adjust itself no matter how far or close a viewer is away from the screen. Will the technology be a solution to fights with theatrical exhibitors? Maybe not yet, but the time is coming.

The technology behind glasses-free 3D is known as "autostereoscopy" and a range of companies from Apple to Nintendo have been working on different approaches toward getting rid of the clunky headgear.

Glasses-free 3D represents something of a holy grail for many consumer tech companies, and Jim Bottoms, director and co-founder of Futuresource Consulting, recently predicted it would be a major part of the home entertainment market by 2015.

At the moment, some obstacles remain.

The first is manufacturing cost. Toshiba’s glasses-free TV is currently priced at more than $10,000.

Just as significantly are various technical challenges. Among them, as San Diego tech patent law firm Mandour & Associates recently explained, "Depending on how near or far the viewer was from the screen, the depth of picture could easily be over or under-exaggerated. As a result of these imaging issues, the viewer could end up with headaches or nausea in extreme cases."

That's where Sony's patent comes in.

The company registered it in June 2010, and keeping with typical USPTO protocol, it only became public earlier this month. According to the abstract:

“A stereoscopic image processing method for a stereoscopic image pair forming a 3-D image comprises the steps of evaluating whether the distance of a user is closer or further than a preferred distance from a 3-D image display upon which the stereoscopic image pair is to be displayed, and if the evaluation indicates that the user is further than the preferred distance from the 3-D image display, adjusting the respective displacements between corresponding image elements in the stereoscopic image pair, thereby changing the stereoscopic parallax in the 3-D image.”

In English, according to the same law firm, "The new technology proposed by the current Sony patent involves a correction that would enable the device to detect the viewer's distance from the screen and automatically adjust the separation of images to provide optimal viewing clarity and sharpness of picture."

Reached for comment, Sony spokesperson Jim Kennedy confirms that work continues on glasses-free LCD panels for VAIO and small electronics, but cautions that there is no movement towards glasses-free 3D in theaters yet.

Currently, the 3D technologies at use in televisions and theaters are different from each other, and observers believe that the technology behind the glasses could evolve quicker than the technology behind glasses-free. The evolution for both TV and theatrical 3D technology will depend on factors like screen size, speed of playback and image quality.

For now, production companies and theatrical exhibitors can continue to bicker over who is picking up the tab for the 3-D glasses. But it's possible to look into the blurry future and easily imagine how the positioning over 3-D entertainment, and the fights like the one that recently erupted over Men in Black 3, could eventually change.

Here's the patent filing: