Are 3D Monitors Making a Comeback?

At one point many years ago, it seemed like home 3D TVs and monitors were the future. Before the rebirth of VR, this was how we’d get more immersive media. Then, 3D seemed to die outside movie theaters—but next-generation 3D displays are here, and they don’t need glasses.

3D on Your Laptop, No Glasses Necessary

At CES 2023, both Acer and ASUS were showing off surprisingly impressive glasses-free 3D laptops. Acer already teased this technology in 2021. The company has a whole “SpatialLabs” product family of hardware, including the gaming-focused Predator Helios 300 SpatialLabs Edition and creator-focused ConceptD SpatialLabs Edition. It also offers a pair of 3D displays, the SpatialLabs and SpatialLabs View Pro, that work with any PC.

If it were Acer alone, despite being a major hardware player, it would be easy to dismiss this as an experiment, but with ASUS joining the club with its creator-focused ProArt Studiobook 16 3D OLED laptop, this technology seems to be ready for end users. The ProArt, in particular, is also a cutting-edge high-end mobile computer with the latest CPU and GPU technology. The 3D display is a 120Hz 3.2K OLED, so it’s by no means a fuzzy, low-res monitor—it’s a proper 2D monitor in its own right. (You can, of course, turn the 3D effect on and off.)

How-To Geek staff have been on the ground at CES 2023, and we’ve been impressed at just how sharp and convincing the 3D effect is. The use of eye tracking even allows for tricks such as looking “around” an on-screen object by moving your head.

There’s no denying that the technology seems ready for early adopters, at the very least. ASUS seems focused primarily on appealing to creators, while Acer is pushing the benefits for gaming as well as creative applications. (Acer told us that, as far as gaming goes, this feature will only work in certified games that Acer enables support for, but the company has enabled it for about 100 games, and there will be more to come.)

The Basics of Glasses-Free 3D

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” as famed sci-fi maestro Arthur C. Clarke famously put it, and glasses-free 3D does seem like sorcery on the surface of it. However, it’s not that hard to understand.

Glasses-free 3D displays work by using a technique called “parallax barrier” or “lenticular printing” to display a different image to each eye, creating the illusion of depth.

The display contains a series of vertical slits or lenses that allow each eye to see a slightly different image, creating the illusion of 3D. As we explained above, these new glasses-free 3D displays also use eye-tracking technology to adjust the image displayed to each eye in real-time, ensuring that the 3D effect is maintained as the viewer’s head moves.

The Technology Isn’t New

The tech behind these screens might sound familiar if you’ve ever used Nintendo’s 3DS and later New 3DS handheld consoles. These consoles use exactly this technology, at least in principle, despite releasing in 2011 and 2015, respectively.

The first generation of 3DS had numerous problems, mainly that it was hard to remain in the 3D sweet spot with a handheld console. The “Super Stable” 3D in the later New 3DS used eye-tracking to ensure each image was correctly directed to each eye. This offered a much better experience compared to the sometimes headache-inducing first-generation attempt.

Booting up a New 3DS today is still a magical experience despite the screen’s small size and low resolution of the image. The 3DS is only one example of this, as there have been a few other autostereoscopic products on the market in the past. However, none have had any real market impact compared to Nintendo’s handheld, which would still have sold well without the 3D feature, as its 2D-only variants have shown.

So What’s Different This Time?

Acer Predator Helios 300 SpatialLabs Edition playing a 3D game.
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek

It’s not hard to explain why glasses-free 3D is desirable. If you could swap the screen you currently use to one with the option to flip on a 3D mode with no real downsides, you’d probably be happy to make the change.

Yet, the main reason this hasn’t yet become a common thing is that there have been so many downsides. Resolution and cost are two major factors, and in addition, the sophistication of eye-tracking technology and a compromised 2D mode were also areas of concern.

It seems that, apart from cost, these issues have been largely solved. We already have more resolution than we can properly use on laptops. 4K laptops generally don’t look much different to 1440p or monitors at normal viewing distances. However, since the 3D effect essentially halves the resolution each eye can see, you’re still left with a sharp image in 3D mode.

Related: Should You Buy an OLED laptop?

Advances in processing power and AI-powered algorithms also means that eye- and facial-tracking are now commonplace, accurate, and cheap to implement. Computers also have plenty of processing power to spare to run those algorithms in real-time.

So what we’re seeing now is not so much a revolution but a radical refinement of an existing technology that was simply too far ahead of its time.

Solving 3D’s Commercial Failure

3D TVs and monitors that work with either active or passive glasses has been dead as a product category for a while now. NVIDIA killed its 3D Vision technology in 2019, and Sony and LG dropped support for their 3D TV two years prior to that.

In the end, the major downfall of these products is that they were just too much of a hassle to use. There were image quality compromises to get 3D, software support on PC wasn’t great, and content was lacking.

This new generation of displays may solve nearly all of these issues by being convenient, offering little compromise in image quality, and implementing much more robust software support.

The Elephant In the Room: Software Support

That last point may be debatable, however since it remains to be seen just how far software support stretches for such displays. First of all, Acer and ASUS each have their own solutions, with plugins and applications that offer differing levels of interoperability. In some cases, apps and games will work without needing input from the original developers, in other cases the software developers need to explicitly support a given 3D solution. It’s too early to predict how it will all shake out, but we may have a new format war (like HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray) on our hands until a mutual standard is adopted.

Even with current VR headsets, we have various APIs that have to be translated or supported to make headsets play nice with software from different storefronts, so if more competitors get in on the 3D display action, the same thing is likely to happen.

There’s One Big Problem Left

While this new generation of autostereoscopic seems like the concept of 3D perfected, there’s one major issue that glasses-based 3D didn’t have: multiple viewers. Thanks to the way this technology works, two people can’t see the 3D effect at the same time.

This makes it suitable for single-viewer displays like laptops, phones, tablets, and monitors, but not large format displays meant to be viewed by a room full of people. This specific implementation of 3D technology will probably never work with multiple viewers, but in a world of highly-personal devices that shouldn’t be much of an issue.

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