How a Cheap Plastic Film Can Give Your Smartphone a 3-D Screen

A plastic smartphone screen cover patterned with tiny lenses could help mobile 3-D take off.

Low-cost 3-D technology could usher in new mobile entertainment content.

Last week, a company in Singapore began shipping $35 plastic screen protectors for the iPhone 5. These are no ordinary screen protectors, though—each has half a million tiny lenses precisely patterned on its surface, which can turn an ordinary phone into a device capable of displaying 3-D images and video, no glasses required.

The 3-D effect of the “EyeFly 3D” screen protectors, made by Nanoveu, is based on lenticular lens technology, which was invented over a century ago and is used to make posters and postcards that move as the viewer changes his or her perspective. The lenses send separate images to the left and right eye to create the illusion of depth.

What makes the EyeFly unique is its manufacturing process. In particular, say its inventors, a patent-pending nanofabrication step allows for the application of “perfectly shaped lenses,” each small enough to sit above a single pixel image on the highest-resolution LCD displays on the market, and focus it toward either the right or left eye.

“We have taken an age-old lenticular lens technology and improved it with nanotechnology,” says Loke Yee Chong, a researcher at the Singaporean government’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). Loke helped lead the development of the fabrication technique.

Mobile phone and tablet displays that enable glasses-free 3-D viewing have been available for several years. But the market hasn’t taken off, in part because the relatively small amount of available content formatted for 3-D doesn’t justify the expense of integrating 3-D technology directly into the hardware (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2010: Mobile 3-D”). Further, modifying the screen to enable 3-D viewing generally reduces resolution, a fact that has also hindered previous approaches to plastic overlays.

The EyeFly 3D could change things, not only because it is relatively inexpensive, but also because Nanoveu promises both high-quality 3-D viewing and “distortion-free” 2-D viewing, at least on certain high-resolution screens.

Software applications take photo and video content made with separate images for the left and right eye, “dissect each frame” and then “reassemble them together in a way that our lens can understand,” explains Nanoveu CEO Alfred Chong. An additional app will enable conversion of 2-D images into 3-D, he says. Nanoveu will also develop a software development kit for producing 3-D games, and plans to work with game-makers to offer their content in 3-D.

A detailed installation guide shows how to use one of the apps to install the film and make sure it is properly aligned.

Soon after the introductory product for the iPhone and iPod 5, the company plans to roll out films for the third and fourth generation iPads, the Samsung Galaxy S3, S4, and Note 2, and the HTC Butterfly and DNA, according to its website.

The key to the product’s low cost, says Loke, is a new manufacturing method, the result of several years of research and development by researchers at A*STAR and Singapore’s Temasek Polytechnic. The method is based on nanoimprint lithography, which first emerged in the mid-1990s and employs hard material to stamp extremely small and precise patterns onto a softer material. The resulting imprints are used to make finished products, for example through etching or the deposition of additional materials (See: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2003: Nanoimprint Lithography).

A*STAR and Temasek have licensed the manufacturing technology to Nanoveu. The proprietary process, says Loke, is “highly customizable,” and will allow the company to rapidly adapt it to make films customized for specific smartphones and tablets. Chong says the “roll-to-roll” manufacturing process “can be scaled up much like the way newspapers are printed” (see “Nano Printing Goes Large”).

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