Sharp keeps stereoscopic phone in Japan

by Guy Kewney | posted on 28 November 2002

Time was when "stereo" meant Viewmaster stereoscopic photo viewers, not stereophonic sound. Sharp has changed this: it has produced a display which shows genuine stereo(scopic) three-dimensional images. But what will people use it to look at?

Guy Kewney

The phone is amazing: it's the Japanese i-shot (i-mode standard) Mova SH251iS phone which works on DoCoMo service from NTT

<1/> true 3-D - not visible here!

- it is a camera-phone. Here's the odd thing about it: it can display true-3D (stereo) images. But the camera can't take stereo images; it can only take ordinary, flat, 2D pictures. So it's a bit odd that Sharp is taking the view that it is: it says it can't launch the phone outside Japan until the market changes.

And the change it wants, is for the market to take up camera phones.

The phone display was designed at Sharp's European Laboratories in Oxford, where research staff said that it was possible to create pseudo-stereoscopic images with the camera in the mova model; software takes a single shot and generates a dual version which gives a (frankly, awful) simulation of stereoscopic 3D

How does the 3D effect work?

<1/> A model of how the 3D TFT is built

It's not complex: there are two layers to the display. The deepest layer has two separate pixel sets, side by side; and then a top layer has a grating. If your eyes are in the right position - shown by the converging red and green lines in the illustrated model - then the right eye can only see the right-hand set of pixels, and the left can only see the left-hand set.

The clever bit of the technology is that the 3D effect can be turned off.

A hardware switch turns the grating off; and the deeper set of cells is then addressed as a single matrix, giving, of course, higher resolution.

The only problem facing the user, is getting their eyes in the right position. There is a bit of lattitude; you can move forward and backwards a couple of inches, and you can move left or right a few inches too. To help you get it right, there's a grating of red and black vertical lines underneath the image. If it shows red, you're in the wrong place; only when all the reds are hidden have you found the right spot. Candidly, I'm in two minds about how restful this is. Supposedly, it makes 3D games possible; I'm dubious about how easy it would be to control the game without twisting the phone so that the image was lost; and I suspect that neck stiffness might result from holding the head still, too. But that we will have to wait and see for a verdict.

The real reason Sharp's marketing department has decided not to push this product, is probably the confusion of the European market for multi-media data transmissions, compared with the way the Japanese market works.

In Japan, data transmissions between mobile phones are relatively cheap. If you provide images for download, NTT DoCoMo keeps only about 10% of the fee. In Europe, however, the phone operators started out proposing that they'd keep 80% of the fee for any downloads from third parties - and after failing to attract any business, they've pulled back - to 55% minimum! And the prices of GPRS and MMS make no sense whatever.

When European carriers have a rational approach to large data file transfer which allows both picture providers and users to feel they are getting a good deal, perhaps this phone will appear on GPRS-based networks. It certainly looks beautiful!