3D TV came. We saw. It didn’t conquer.

Almost every high-end TV sold for the past several years has been 3D-capable, so there are millions of sets deployed, but viewer enthusiasm for watching 3D at home has been tepid.

“(Manufacturers) are fooled if they think they can predict what the public would like,” says Lenny Lipton, the godfather of modern 3D. “If someone could do that, there’d be a lot more millionaires.”

The consensus among consumers and industry insiders alike seems to be that until those pesky glasses are done away with, 3D TV will stay a niche experience. So manufacturers big and small are working to deliver 3D to the living room without glasses.

In fact, people have been working on autostereo displays for almost 100 years. A theater in Moscow played movies in glasses-free 3D six decades ago. It was dark and fuzzy, but it was autostereo. Phillips, having concluded that 3D TV with glasses would never catch on, put a lot of effort into autostereo in the mid-1990s. So did Lipton’s company, StereoGraphics. Clunky autostereo prototypes from major TV makers have been shown at CES for years.

Today the advent of Ultra Hi-Def 4K displays is proving a boon for autostereo. At last year’s CES, Toshiba showed an autostereo TV, the 55ZL2, with a 4K screen. Like several experimental autostereo TVs, the 55ZL2 creates nine separate views, and it needs all those pixels to give each view enough resolution to qualify as HD. The 55ZL2 was introduced in 2012 — but good luck finding one, even a demonstration unit, at a retail store.

Meanwhile at last year’s CES several vendors also showed proprietary autostereo tech available for bigger companies to license. Probably the most familiar name among those autostereo tech vendors is Dolby Labs. “A TV manufacturer can’t build a device by themselves,” says Roland Vlaicu, Dolby’s senior director of broadcast imaging. “They need integrated technology from display panel vendors, support from the chip guys, the IC vendors, etc. All those supply chain components need to be lined up and Dolby is working with the major players to get deliverables to them.”

Lipton calls Dolby’s autostereo display “the best I’ve ever seen,” but adds “I’ll be damned if I know whether the public will accept it.”

Autostereo is less of a technical challenge on smaller screens, and has already arrived at retail on some phones and the Nintendo 3DS, but there too consumer interest has been tepid. MasterImage provided the 3D tech for one of the first autostereo mobile phones with Hitachi in 2009 but only about 300,000 units sold. Matt Liszt, MasterImage’s VP of marketing, blames the blah figure on the lack of 3D content.

MasterImage is back at CES 2013 showing more glasses-free screens. “We are primed to deploy several smartphones and tablets sized 4.3, 7, and 10.1-inch with our proprietary technology: Cell-Matrix Parallax Barrier,” Liszt says. He thinks second screens, not TVs, will be the tip of the spear for autostereo in the home.

Lipton says it took 20 years for 50% penetration of color television, and almost the same amount of time for HDTV. Few would be surprised if it takes another 10-20 years to bring a very good autostereo TV to market at an affordable price.

But there is a troubling joke among 3D experts: “Autostereo TV is 10 years away,” they say, “and always will be.”

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