Flashback: the multiple times that 3D phones failed to catch on
After a 13-year hiatus Avatar is back in cinemas – the original film revolutionized the industry, turning 3D from a gimmick into a must-have for every blockbuster. But what happened when a 3D movie left the silver screen and was released on Blu-ray? The rise in popularity of 3D movies created a need for TVs that could play them in your own home.
Except this version of events doesn’t tell the whole story, 3D is much older than Avatar. Seriously, the first color movie came out in 1908, the first stereoscopic 3D movie came out in 1922 (or maybe earlier). Until James Cameron’s movies, however, 3D was only an occasional gimmick that was revived and quickly forgotten several times over the years. And while 3D movies in theaters are still the norm, they drop down to two dimensions for home release.
The charitable interpretation is that the 3D effect really benefits from a larger screen, while even the larger home TVs don’t see enough of the benefits. But if the 3D effect isn’t worth it on a 40+ inch TV, what chance does it have to succeed on a screen you can put in your pocket? (the less charitable interpretation is that 3D tickets cost more by the way)
Phones with 3D screens precede the upheaval that Avatar caused in Hollywood. British release The Guardian has an article from 2002 titled The return of 3D – it’s not about the latest string of gimmicky horror movies in 3D (of which there was no shortage), it was about the first ever phone with a 3D screen.
This phone was the Sharp mova SH251iS for NTT DoCoMo, and although it was only available in Japan, The Guardian found it interesting because the display technology was developed by a British team. It was an autostereoscopic display, meaning you didn’t need glasses to see the 3D effect, but it only worked from a certain perspective.
The Sharp mova SH251iS is so old that we couldn’t even find a good picture of it
If you have experience with this type of screen, it is very likely that it came from a Nintendo 3DS. However, the 3DS didn’t come out until 2010 – Sharp was (as always) way ahead of the curve. We have to admit that the title of the article gave us a chuckle, even as far back as 2002 the attitude towards 3D was “ugh, it’s back”.
The Nintendo 3DS has probably the most popular autostereoscopic display out there
Either way, while the British had 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 photo, you had to take a photo, move a little to the side, and take another photo. Afterwards, the software would merge the two into a side-by-side 3D image that could be viewed on the phone’s screen… and maybe no other screen you had. Or like your friends had, unless they also bought a mova SH251iS.
This means that the first ever phone with a 3D display encountered the same problem that plagued other upcoming 3D phones – you can see 3D content on the phone and nowhere else. Want to see a picture on your computer? Unless you have specific hardware, you can only get a 2D image. Same for watching it on your TV or printing it (remember, this was back in 2002).
You can use a pair of cheap red-cyan glasses and special software to view 3D images on a 2D screen. Except the cheap glasses really ruin the colors in the picture – not ideal for film or photography. And most image viewers didn’t know what to do with a 3D image anyway, so you had to surf the web to find something that worked. All this was more trouble than the 3D effect was worth.
Not that the basic 0.3 MP camera could produce great photos. And even the phone’s dedicated 3D display wasn’t exactly high quality – a tiny 2.2” image with only 65K colours.
In 2007, the Samsung SCH-B710 came out, which solved the camera problem. It had a pair of 1.3MP cameras so you could take a 3D photo with a single click. This also solved the problem of photographing moving objects (the two-shot trick doesn’t work if the subject is moving). Samsung also used an autostereoscopic display, and it wasn’t great either – another tiny 2.2” screen with 240 x 320px resolution (note that this type of screen only shows half the resolution to each eye).
Samsung SCH-B710, note: the 3D display only works in one screen orientation
There were some other models, like the Samsung W960 AMOLED 3D and the Spice M-67 3D from 2010, but they didn’t catch on either.
Samsung W960 AMOLED 3D • Spice M-67 3D
Moving on to the post-Avatar era, which also coincided with the advent of Android, we come to the LG Optimus 3D and the HTC EVO 3D. These are probably the phones you thought of when you read the headline.
They may not have been the first, but they had the best opportunity to make 3D work. They had large screens, both 4.3”, and were decently sharp – 480 x 800px on the LG, 540 x 960px on the HTC. And they also had better quality cameras, a pair of 5MP sensors on each phone.
We think the “smartphone” aspect was more important as well as the development of the internet. App stores made it easy to download apps such as an image viewer that supports red-cyan glasses for your friends and family without a 3D phone. It was also easier than ever to share photos over the Internet. So what went wrong this time?
First, let’s show you some 3D camera samples. Do you notice the problem? Whatever browser you use does not support the side-by-side 3D format. There used to be a site that supported various 3D monitors as well as 2D monitors + glasses, but that service died years ago.
Side-by-side 3D images from LG Optimus 3D
YouTube still supports 3D, interestingly, here’s a sample video:
And even if you were a 3D enthusiast who enjoyed the added depth these images have, it was difficult to share these images with family and friends unless they were equally enthusiastic. Perhaps things would have been different if 3D TVs caught on and PC monitors and laptop monitors started supporting 3D.
This brings us back to our point from the beginning – the 3D effect is just not worth it on small screens.
So, is this the end of 3D phones? Or is there a chance for them to make another comeback? The truth is they never went away, there are still new 3D phones (and even 3D tablets) being released. It’s just that they fly so low under the radar that you probably never knew they existed.
Elephone P11 3D is from 2019
In any case, we believe that 3D screens are best left in the past. A 3D photo is quite static, even a 3D video has a fixed perspective. VR is “the next big thing”, it lets you look around freely and with the more advanced headsets you can even move around the stage. It’s everything 3D wanted to be, but better. VR gaming is slowly but steadily increasing in popularity, and VR has found many uses in professional settings.
Smartphones also had their chance to be part of the VR market – remember Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR and all the other similar attempts? Maybe they came out too early, before there was enough watchable content to experience. And maybe there will be a resurgence after Sony’s PSVR2 launch (early next year) and Apple finally delivers its own headset. And of course Meta is pouring billions into the Metaverse. But even if VR headsets make a comeback, we’re betting 3D phones never will.
P.S. Like 3D, VR has been around for longer than you might have expected too. But it has not yet had that Avatar moment.