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TV big shots lack stereo 3D patents

Posted: 22 Sep 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:stereoscopic 3D patent? TV maker? HD display? 3DTV?

The biggest TV makers appear to hold no significant patents in stereoscopic 3D despite the fact that some of the largest Hollywood studios want to drive the concept of 3DTV into the market. LG, Matsushita, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba currently have no significant patents on stereo 3D, according to an initial patent search by EE Times.

Hollywood studios want to help set a standard for 3DTV so they can sell home versions of the increasing number of 3D movies they are creating for the cinema. Some observers say stereo 3D could be the next big thing in TV beyond today's high-definition flat panel systems. Others say the technology is far from ready for prime time.

Some 184 patents come up on a search of the U.S. patent office Website for stereoscopic 3D. About half those patents apply to product concepts such as 3DTV, with most of the rest related to a variety of topics including 3D printing.

The earliest of the patents in that search was granted back in March 1988 to engineers from the apparently defunct 3D Video Corp. Patent number 4,734,756 describes a stereoscopic TV system that is comprehensive in scope but dated in its implementation.

The patent details a whole stereo 3D chain from camera to disk and tape recording, encoding for transmission and display. However it specifies CRT displays and color anaglyph viewingboth of which are now widely seen as outmoded.

Sharp Electronics Corp. is the king of stereo 3D intellectual property with at least 11 stereo 3D patents granted since 1995. The company's patents have received a whopping 99 citations in other filings.

A couple of Sharp's patents (number 7,079,174 granted in 2006 and 6,831,624 from 2004) appear broadly applicable to a wide variety LCD displays that could show 2D and stereo 3D images. The company's most recent patent in the area (number 7,250,710, granted in 2007) relates to stereo 3D on an OLED display.

Six other patents granted between 1995 and 2003 reference autostereoscopic technology, a Holy Grail of the field, because it does not require glasses to resolve to parallel images. Use of a spatial light modulator is key in at least five of the patents. Modulators and polarizing screens are sometimes used to resolve images from two displays in a way that generates a stereo 3D image.

The search showed no stereo 3D patents for TV giants including LG, Mitsubishi, Samsung and Sony.

Philips has one patent (number 6,831,950, granted in 2004) on an encoding scheme which it relates in part to use for stereo 3D video. Toshiba had three patents, but they were related specifically to computer tomography imaging systems. Matsushita had two but only one was related to stereo 3D, and not directly to 3DTV.

Emerging market
Interest in stereo 3D seems to be on the rise. In the last two years, the U.S. patent office has seen a steady flow of patent applications on the topic, sometimes multiple filings a day.

The office received about 40 applications on stereo 3D in 2007 alone. Many of the filings did not cite a company but did come from individuals or teams from Korea and Japan.

Korea's TV giants are playing catch up in stereo 3D. Samsung has filed at least seven and LG has submitted at least three patent applications in the area in less than two years. Samsung's applications include one on a switchable 2D/3D display, another on a compression technology for stereo 3D and two on autostereoscopic technology.

There's still time for the big players to catch up. One patent expert said patents only become really valuable when they apply to shipping products. Although Samsung and LG are experimenting with early 3DTV systems, most observers believe it could take three to five years or longer before the industry sets standards for 3DTVs geared for the mainstream.

"We haven't heard anyone talking about [3DTV patents] yet," said Joe Chernesky, president of IPotential, a patent consulting and brokerage firm. "We typically see activity when there are products on the market that can be considered as infringing," he added.

Activity in patents related to networked content and video streaming, especially to handheld devices have been huge, recently with many of the patent filings starting around 2000, he said.

Not ready for TV?
A smattering of top electronic companies have one or two interesting patents in stereo 3D including Advanced Micro Devices, Intel, Microsoft, NEC and Nokia.

Microsoft was granted in January patent number 7,319,720 on stereoscopic video. It primarily describes a plug-and-play method of tailoring stereo 3D data to the needs of a specific display, a major concern for developers at a time of a variety of emerging display technologies. The patent also touches on issues including data formats, compression schemes and capture techniques for stereo 3D.

Nokia patented an approach to generating 2D or stereo 3D images from a single data stream. The cellphone giant snagged patent number 7,283,665 in October 2007.

Many of the stakeholders in stereo 3D patents are small startups and individual inventors. For example, James Fergason, a veteran inventor considered by many the father of the LCD, holds five stereo 3D patents granted in 2008 as part of a so-called StereoMirror portfolio he licenses as part of his company, Fergason Patent Properties LLC.

The patents basically describe a system that uses two LCD displays mounted one above the other. The screens display the left and right images of a stereo 3D image that is created when a polarizing filter is inserted between them.

"It's not the cheapest [way to implement stereo 3D], though it's not prohibitive and could be considered for high-end gamers," said Fergason. "The approach is set up so you don't lose any resolution, and the images can be viewed by multiple people simultaneously," he added.

Planar Systems Inc. licensed the technology which is being used in systems by military and security analysts to review 3D versions of satellite imagery. Fergason's patents also describe a way to convert computer tomography data into stereo 3D images.

"We are very bullish on [the patents] because it looks like they offer capabilities others don't have, but we stopped short of promoting them for gaming," Fergason said.

Indeed, Chuck McLaughlin, a veteran display analyst who now helps Fergason market his patents, says he is skeptical about using stereo 3D in consumer applications.

Stereo 3D is "still a somewhat limited proposition in the professional market and in the consumer market it's risky," McLaughlin said. "I'm not so sure [3DTV] will happen as some people hope it will," he added.

"In real life we focus and converge on the same 3D space, but in electronics the trick is we focus on one spot and converge on another," he said. "That can make people feel uncomfortable, but nobody really wants to talk about that fact."

Nausea was not uncommon with color anaglyph glasses and analog projectors used in 3D movies during its first big fad in the 1950's. The latest polarizing glasses and digital projection techniques have significantly reduced the problem, though it has not been eliminated, experts say.

Two small startups hold a handful of interesting 3D patents.

Dynamic Digital Depth USA Inc. has at least five patents acquired over as many years, primarily on encoding techniques. The company offers a suite of software for converting 2D images to stereo 3D as well as a set-top box that can be used to convert TV content to 3D for viewing with polarized glasses.

DDD licensed some of its software to Sharp in September 2003. Sharp used the code in its Actius RD3D notebook, a laptop sporting a switchable 2D/3D display. Reviewers generally panned the 3D capability as a novelty with limited content.

Another startup Vrex has at least four 3D patents including number 7,180,554 granted in 2007 for use with a digital light processing display. The company claims its founder, Sadeg Faris, has more than twenty patents and applications. Vrex primarily focuses on professional markets for its line of projection systems, converter boxes and specialty glasses for use with monitors and notebooks.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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