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Peering into the sci-fi future of PC displays

Brad Chacos | April 1, 2013
Moore's law may keep us supplied with octa-core smartphone processors and PCs packed with millions of transistors, but not all areas of technology keep the pedal to the proverbial metal as enthusiastically as the chip technology. Specifically, desktop displays--the portals through which we glimpse the output of those hulking CPUs--are stuck in neutral while the technology in the rest of your PC tears ahead at breakneck speed.

There are many ways to implement this technology, but the most interesting autostereoscopic displays use a technique called movement parallax, which alters your view of the 3D object depending on your head position, creating a true (albeit simulated) 3D experience.

Microsoft Research is working on just such a system, which you can see in action at the 1:55 mark of this video by the Verge. (Warning: Since the technology relies on beaming signals directly to the eyes of individuals, it doesn't film well.) Microsoft's display tracks your eyes with a Kinect camera, then uses the information to beam two separate yet simultaneous images at you from behind an LCD screen--one to your left eye and the other to your right. The dual pics trick your brain into seeing a 3D image on screen, the depth and location of which adjusts according to your position (as also tracked by the Kinect camera).

Ready for something really creepy/awesome? Two people staring at the same screen could be staring at two completely different images when Microsoft's technology matures. Alas, today it's still in its infant stage.

SpaceTop

SpaceTop, another project born of Microsoft research, mixes traditional 2D desktop computing with an innovative interface that lets you manipulate objects in three dimensions.

To accomplish this, SpaceTop relies on a transparent screen sitting between you and the system's keyboard and touchpad. A camera built into the rear of the screen keeps track of your hands for motion-control purposes, while a user-facing camera tracks your head's position to display 3D images on screen in the correct scale and perspective. Rather than trying to explain more, I'll just point you to the video above. This display needs to be seen to be understood.

Leonar3do

If that sounds a bit too esoteric, check out Leonar3do, which its builders' call "the world's first desktop VR kit." The software, paired with a crucial set of 3D glasses and a unique 3D mouse called The Go Bird, allows you to view and manipulate objects in 3D.

The video above provides a demonstration of what it's like to use Leonard3do, which targets a wide range of markets including 3D modeling, gaming, and even education. We spent some time with the technology at CES and came away impressed. Said our on-the-spot editors: "From our time with the virtual work engine, it seems like a stunning way to create, demonstrate, and visualize virtual 3D objects in real space."

Thinking big

One oft-cited imagining of the future entails a preponderance of utterly massive displays: wall-size beasts that dwarf the monitor sitting on your desk right now. But screens that large invite unique interface quandaries--especially if they're touchscreen enabled. How does a mammoth monitor respond to multiple users? What if you can't reach the top of the display? Will the slingshot in Angry Birds even be manageable? And so on.

 

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