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Tech upstarts kicking glasses in 3D

Stream, 3D Fusion, MasterImage tout autostereo advances

There’s no shortage of innovation from the major TV manufacturers on display at the huge booths at CES: OLED, 4K — even 8K — resolution, new interfaces, connectivity, exclusive content. What’s absent here, though, are any prototypes to indicate that glasses-free (autostereo) 3D TV is anywhere close to market.

That’s not to say that autostereo TV can’t be found at CES. It’s just coming from smaller companies in smaller booths — one with barely a booth at all. They are pressing ahead with — and showing off — autostereo screens for television, tablets and smartphones while the big makers remain oddly quiet on the topic.

“Consumer electronics companies wanted to get into the home market quickly,” said Raja Rajan, chief operating officer of Stream TV, whose booth in Central Hall, of the mammoth Las Vegas Convention Center, is not far from Sony’s. “The consumer electronics companies have tremendous financial pressures to get to market with the fastest, easiest technologies.”

That is echoed by one of Rajan’s competitors, Stephen Blumenthal of 3D Fusion, a late addition to the floor that has one of its models tucked into the 3D Bee booth at the periphery of Central Hall.

“They brought (3D with glasses) to the market as a very straightforward consumer play, and until they burn through the opportunity to make as much revenue off of it as possible, this adventure with the next step is on the back burner,” Blumenthal said.

His partner Ilya Sorokin noted, “The 3D with glasses technology was much easier to incorporate into their existing infrastructure because it was already there, and just lying on a shelf.”

Both 3D Fusion and Stream TV are using advanced, lens-based tech that, according to Rajan, was abandoned by the big companies.

Rajan said he toured Asia showing Stream TV’s screens and its real-time 2D-to-3D converter to major hardware makers, who responded enthusiastically. Stream TV is looking to be a technology provider, not to manufacture under its own name.

“We expect in the next few weeks to start announcing some of the first brands and products rolling out,” Rajan said.

He said there is strong interest from Hollywood in the converter box, because it can be built into cable and satellite boxes, enabling all channels to be in 3D. At the same time, Stream’s units come with controllers so the consumer can turn the 3D down, or off altogether, for comfort or personal preference.

“Our cost is incrementally 10% to 15% max over the cost of goods for a 2D television,” Rajan said. “That’s significant because a big re-seller can get into the consumer market at a cost consumers can afford.”

MasterImage 3D, which has a solid worldwide business projecting 3D in theaters, is in the South Hall. It has been in the autostereo screen business for some time, and this year is at CES with two screens aimed straight at state-of-the-art mobile devices: a 720p 4.3-inch smartphone display and a WUXGA (1920×1200) display for tablets.

Royston Taylor, exec VP and general manager for MasterImage, said he welcomes the competition from Stream TV, which is also showing tablet screens.

“First, it validates what you’re trying to do,” Taylor said. “Being on your own is nice in terms of no competition, but it’s very lonely in terms of being the only voice saying how great something is. The second thing is competition is always good for the consumer.”

Despite strong sales of the Nintendo 3DS, the poor critical response to the 3DS, the HTC Evo 3D phone and the LG Optimus 3D phone have made some makers nervous, Taylor said. He now expects to be making announcements of deals with consumer electronics companies by April and to have gear with MasterImage 3D screens in stores by Thanksgiving.

One hurdle that had to be overcome was the lack of technical standards for judging the quality of a 3D display.

“Right now it’s almost entirely subjective,” he said. “Big companies won’t risk a $250 million phone line on 3D just because it looks nice.”

But a French company, Eldim, has come up with a product for testing 3D displays on objective, technical measurements. With standards in place, it will be possible to compare products and establish quality control in manufacturing.

3D Fusion is already selling autostereo TVs for use in digital signage. Blumenthal said the company is selling its turnkey solution, which includes a 42-inch autostereo display, at CES. Cost is $8,000. His sales are to retailers, small mom-and-pop chains, malls. Blumenthal and Sorkin recognize that their company is small and they’re in no position to ramp up to consumer volumes on their own. Like Stream TV, they’d be happy to license their technology.

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