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After a gap of 13 years Avatar: returns to cinemas. the original film revolutionized the industry and turned 3D from a gimmick to a must-have in every blockbuster. But what happened when the 3D movie left the silver screen and was released on Blu-ray? The rise in popularity of 3D movies created a need for televisions that could play them in the comfort of your own home.

If this version of events doesn’t tell the whole story, 3D is much older than that Avatar:. Seriously, the first color movie came out in 1908, the first stereoscopic 3D movie came out in 1922 (or maybe earlier). However, until James Cameron, 3D was just a random gimmick that was revived and quickly forgotten a few times over the years. And while 3D movies in theaters are still the norm, they’re dropping to two dimensions for home release.

The charitable interpretation is that the 3D effect does benefit from a larger screen, while even larger home TVs don’t see enough of a benefit. But if the 3D effect isn’t worth it on a 40+ inch TV, what chance does it have of succeeding on a screen you can put in your pocket? (a less charitable interpretation is that 3D tickets cost more, by the way)

3D display phones preceded the shock that Avatar: originated in Hollywood. British edition The Guardian: has a 2002 article titled “The Return of 3D”. it wasn’t about the latest batch of 3D horror movies (of which there was no shortage), it was about the first phone with a 3D screen.

That phone was the Sharp mova SH251iS for NTT DoCoMo, and while it was only available in Japan, The Guardian: found it interesting because the screen technology was developed by a British team. It was an autostereoscopic display, meaning you didn’t need glasses to see the 3D effect, but it only worked from a specific angle.

The Sharp mova SH251iS is so old that we couldn't even find a good picture of it
The Sharp mova SH251iS is so old that we couldn’t even find a good picture of it

If you have experience with this type of display, it is very likely that it came from a Nintendo 3DS. However, the 3DS didn’t come out until 2010; Sharp (as always) was way ahead. We have to admit that the title of the article made us laugh, even back in 2002 the attitude towards 3D was “ugh, it’s back”.

The Nintendo 3DS has probably the most popular autostereoscopic display out there
The Nintendo 3DS has probably the most popular autostereoscopic display out there

Anyway, while the British figured out how to build a 3D display, making a 3D camera was still an open question. The Sharp phone only had one camera, so to capture a 3D image you had to take a photo, move slightly to the side, and take a second photo. The software will then combine the two into a side-by-side 3D image that can be seen on the phone’s screen… and probably no other screen you’ve got. Or that your friends had, unless they also bought a mova SH251iS.

This means that the first phone ever with a 3D display suffered from the same problem that plagued other 3D phones; you can watch 3D content on the phone and nowhere else. Want to view a photo on your computer? If you don’t have a specific hardware, you can only get a 2D image. Same for watching on TV or printing (remember, this was back in 2002).

Flashback: 3D phones

You can use a pair of inexpensive red-green glasses and special software to view 3D images on a 2D screen. Except for those cheap glasses that really mess up the colors in the image, which isn’t ideal for movies or photography. And most image viewers didn’t know what to do with a 3D image anyway, so you had to scour the early internet to find something that worked. All this was more trouble than the 3D effect was worth.

Not that the main 0.3 MP camera could produce stunning images. And even the special 3D screen of the phone was not very high quality. a tiny 2.2” image with only 65k colors.

In 2007, the Samsung SCH-B710 appeared, which solved the camera problem. It had a 1.3MP camera so you could take a 3D photo with one click. This also solved the problem of taking photos of moving objects (the two photo trick won’t work if the object is moving). Samsung also used an autostereoscopic display, and that wasn’t great either; another small 2.2 inch screen with a resolution of 240 x 320px (note that this type of screen only shows half the resolution of each eye).

Samsung SCH-B710, note.  3D view only works in one screen orientation
Samsung SCH-B710, note. 3D view only works in one screen orientation

There were a few other models like the Samsung W960 AMOLED 3D and the Spice M-67 3D from 2010, but neither of them caught on.


Samsung W960 AMOLED 3D
Spice M-67 3D

Samsung W960 AMOLED 3D • Spice M-67 3D

Moving on to the post-Avatar era, which also coincided with the rise of Android, we come to the LG Optimus 3D and the HTC EVO 3D. These are probably the phones you thought of when you read the title.

Flashback: 3D phones

They may not have been the first, but they had the best chance of creating 3D work. They had large screens, both 4.3”, and were decently clear. 480 x 800px on LG, 540 x 960px on HTC. And they had better cameras too, with a pair of 5MP sensors on each phone.

Flashback: 3D phones

We think the ‘smartphone’ aspect was more important, as was the evolution of the internet. App stores have made it easy to download apps like an image viewer that supports red blue glasses for your friends and family without a 3D phone. Plus, sharing photos online was easier than ever. So what went wrong this time?

First, let me show you some 3D camera samples. Notice the problem? Whichever browser you are using does not support side-by-side 3D. There used to be a site that supported various 3D displays as well as 2D displays + glasses, but that service died years ago.


Side-by-side 3D photos of the LG Optimus 3D
Side-by-side 3D photos of the LG Optimus 3D
Side-by-side 3D photos of the LG Optimus 3D
Side-by-side 3D photos of the LG Optimus 3D

Side-by-side 3D photos of the LG Optimus 3D

YouTube still supports 3D, interestingly enough, here’s a sample video:

And even if you were a 3D enthusiast who enjoyed the added depth of these images, sharing with family and friends was difficult unless they were equally enthusiastic. Maybe if 3D TVs came along and then computer monitors and laptop screens started supporting 3D, things would be different.

This brings us back to our point from the beginning. The 3D effect just isn’t worth it on small screens.

So this is the end for 3D phones. Or is there a chance that they will come back again? The truth is that they never went away, there are still new 3D phones (and even 3D tablets) being released. It’s just that they fly so low under the radar that you probably never knew they existed.

Elephone P11 3D 2019
Elephone P11 3D 2019

Either way, we think 3D screens are best left in the past. 3D photography is quite static, even 3D video has a fixed perspective. VR is the “next big thing”, it allows you to look around freely and with more advanced headsets you can even move around the scene. It’s everything 3D wanted to be, but better. VR gaming is slowly but steadily growing in popularity, and VR has found many applications in professional settings.

Flashback: 3D phones

Smartphones also had a chance to become part of the VR market. remember Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR and all the similar experiments? Maybe they came out too soon before there was enough valuable content to try. And maybe there will be a revival after Sony’s PSVR2 comes out (early next year) and Apple finally ships its own headset. And of course Meta is pouring billions into the Metaverse. But even if VR handsets make a comeback, we bet 3D handsets never will.

P.S. Like 3D, VR has been around longer than you might expect. But it still hasn’t had its thing Avatar: the moment

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