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3M helps produce 3-D images--without special glasses

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Webster
3M's Steven Webster holds a prototype of a device displaying a 3-D image based on technology the Maplewood-based company helped develop.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

There are a lot of efforts underway now to bring 3-D to the big screen, in both theaters and your living room.

One of the most recent efforts in 3-D was a movie that came out last summer, "Journey to the Center of the Earth."

3-D movies have been around since the 50s, but we've been seeing a revival lately. Disney, Fox and other studios have dozens of 3-D movies in the pipeline. 

Meanwhile, Panasonic, Samsung and other TV manufacturers are developing 3-D TV sets for the mass market. 

But to get the 3-D experience at the movies -- and with most of the TV sets -- you have to wear special glasses. The glasses help trick your eyes into perceiving depth.

3M's 3-D efforts, for now at least, have a  different focus. They're concentrated on the small screens that fill our lives; cell phones, GPS devices, PDAs, Handheld gaming units.  

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Steven Webster is vice president of research and technology commercialization at 3M. He said the 3-D technology the company is helping develop doesn't require special glasses.

"You don't want to have to carry around a pair of glasses just to watch your cell phone," Webster said. "It's got to be something you can see without carrying any special glasses."

3M won't make the devices, but it'll provide manufacturers with a key part of what makes the devices produce 3-D images. That component is a newly developed -- and patented -- optical film that goes on display screens. 

The film allows a screen to rapidly project alternating images for a viewer's right and left eyes, fooling the eyes into perceiving three dimensions.

What you see on the prototypes 3M and its partners have developed are still images and full-motion videos that provide a sense of depth that surprisingly realistic. 

Objects appear to pop out of the screen or recede deep into the screen. Look at a flower and you see one leaf behind another behind another.  

In a video of a football game, players scamper about the field like Lilliputians locked in a mini diorama come to life.  

That's what really grabbed 3M's Webster.

Vintage 3-D camera
Erik Kleiner of National Camera Exchange holds a vintage 3-D camera.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

"The first time I saw a football game in 3-D, that's the thing that actually wowed me," he said. "It had the  same effect on me as when I first saw high-definition many years ago."

There is a rub to the 3-D technology 3M is working on, however. Webster notes viewers have to be positioned just right to see things in three dimensions.

"If you go way off to the side one way or the other on this technology, you will see the 3-D effect go way and it will kind of turn to a 2-D image," he said.

So, Webster said that limits the film's usefulness to screens not much bigger than 17 inches wide or so. For now.

But that still leaves lots of devices to pump up with 3-D. 

One of the companies 3M is working with is Toshiba.

Sean Collins, an executive in Toshiba's display division, expects consumers will love 3-D.

"The human eye naturally sees 3-D. So, having it on a display I think provides a superior viewing experience," he said.

And Collins expects manufacturers will be able to charge extra for 3-D devices.

One camera maker, at least, is working on a new generation of 3-D cameras. 

Fujifilm has a 3-D camera and companion viewer in development. It will let consumers shoot 3-D images and display them on digital photo frames.

Erik Kleiner, who works at National Camera Exchange's Golden Valley store, has seen many 3-D cameras and viewers in his nearly 30 years in the photo business. Most were made in the late 50s and early 60s. But he said they haven't lost their appeal.

"There's some interest still in the stereo film cameras, because they're cool," Kleiner said. "Once someone looks through them, they'll go, 'Wow.'  It's three dimensional and it's like you're in the scene."

Kleiner suspects 3-D digital photography could be a good niche market.

"It just depends on the quality and the price. I think it's a good possibility," he said.  

It may help that more and more people aren't printing their photos but just looking at them on screens.

Mickey Fischer, of Minnetonka, a serious hobbyist photographer, said that trend could be decisive in the acceptance of 3-D photography--assuming it provides enough of a wow factor in the first place to grab consumers' eyes and wallets.

"It all depends on where the viewing culture would go," Fischer said. "With digital stills, a lot of people are viewing images on computers or TV screens. And they're not printing as much anymore."

3M's Steve Webster said some 3-D devices using the company's technology may or may not make it to the marketplace by Christmas. But, he doesn't think it'll be much more than a year before 3-D starts coming to the small screens in our lives in a big way.