From The Wall Street Journal - Asia Technology - October 04, 2010
By DAISUKE WAKABAYASHI and JURO OSAWA
CHIBA, Japan—Toshiba Corp. said it plans to start selling the world's first glasses-free 3-D liquid-crystal-display television sets in December, less than a year after most set makers launched 3-D televisions that require the cumbersome eyewear.
It is the latest indication of the cutthroat nature of the television-set industry, marked by precipitous price declines every year and innovations that threaten to cannibalize promising technologies even before companies can cash in on years of research and development.
As 3-D content becomes more prevalent in movies and videogames, electronics companies are trying to shed the glasses that help create the illusion of depth. Nintendo Co. plans to introduce a portable game system next year that will play 3-D games without the need for glasses.
At a news conference ahead of this week's Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies, also known as CEATEC, in the outskirts of Tokyo, Toshiba said the new glasses-free TVs will be available in Japan in two screen sizes, 12 inches and 20 inches. There is no current plan for an overseas release.
The 12-inch model is expected to sell for about 120,000 yen ($1,440) while the 20-inch model will carry a price tag of around 240,000 yen. Toshiba played down the commercial impact of the new television sets since it is offering only a very small release of 2,000 units a month, compared with its 1.25 million LCD television-sets-a-month target for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2011.
"It's still not at a satisfactory level in terms of price or screen size," said Masaaki Oosumi, who heads the company's digital products division. "But if you take a long-term view of 3-D technology, the direction is ultimately toward glasses-free."
New 3-D TVs are expected to be a major driver of sales this holiday season. Research firm DisplaySearch forecasts global shipments of 3.4 million 3-D television sets in 2010, accounting for roughly 5% of the total flat-panel set market.
"If the marketing is not done well, it might confuse consumers. They might think 'If the set without the glasses is coming soon, then why buy the models with the glasses now,' " said Macquarie Securities analyst Damian Thong.
Most 3-D technologies create the illusion of depth on a flat screen by presenting different images to the left and right eye, using glasses. Creating the effect using a display alone—a technology called autostereoscopic—is more difficult. One challenge is that the images can be blurry, especially if viewed from side angles.
Toshiba tackled the problem by placing a thin sheet over the display to make sure images meant for each eye, right and left, go to the intended eye. In conjunction, Toshiba also uses a powerful processor to render nine images from a single frame, so it can be viewed from multiple angles.
One drawback to this combined method compared with current high-definition 3-D television with glasses: The picture's resolution is reduced by more than 50%.
Toshiba seems to address another major problem facing 3-D television sets: lack of content. The company says that the sets can upgrade 2-D images to 3-D so content makers don't need to create content specific for 3-D, addressing the shortage of 3-D content. The new sets can also display 2-D video.
At CEATEC, Toshiba is also demonstrating a 56-inch version of its glasses-free 3-D television set, although company executives said there is no timetable for its release. Toshiba's Mr. Oosumi acknowledged that in order to target a mainstream U.S. consumer with the technology, it would need to think about a television bigger than 40 inches.
Another hurdle could be price. At 240,000 yen, the larger 20-inch model would be more expensive than a 40-inch 3-D model from Sony Corp., which is selling at a major electronics retailers in Japan for 227,500 yen including glasses.
Write to Daisuke Wakabayashi at Daisuke.Wakabayashi@wsj.com
and Juro Osawa at firstname.lastname@example.org