In-Flight Movies Could Go 3D
The Nintendo 3DS uses a clever display developed by Sharp. A layer of tiny stripes covers an LCD screen, so that your left and right eyes see different images. This trick creates an illusion of of depth and space. Nintendo is certainly using the technology for games, and has not entered talks with the aviation industry. But its glasses-free 3D innovation could work perfectly well on seatback TVs.
In fact, the technology is more ripe to become a standard perk on airplanes than it is to become popular in suburban living rooms. Here's why: to enjoy the full 3D effect without wearing specs, you need to be positioned in front of, and relatively close to, the screen. A person glancing at the screen from an angle, or at a distance of a couple feet away, can't see the illusion.
So the glasses-free effect only creates pop-up imagery when you are holding a game console at arm's length – or when you're sitting in an airplane and viewing the screen on the seatback in front of you. Glasses-free 3D does not work well in a large room, like in a suburban house, because the viewing area is too broad.
An airline could adapt the glasses-free 3D technology to stream movies and TV shows, not just video games. An airline could even install two cameras in the nose of a plane, to take advantage of the technology's ability to mesh the video feeds and generate live, 3D broadcasts of takeoffs and landings.
The idea for pulling off the glasses-free 3D trick is not a trade secret. It has been widely understood for decades. But it is only recently that high-resolution LCD screens capable of creating spectacular images became cheap enough to sell in large numbers.
Other equipment manufacturers could quickly develop similar displays to what Nintendo and Sharp are offering. Sony and Toshiba have already marketed similar – though expensive – glasses-free 3D TVs.
That said, it may take several years before 3D is introduced to airplanes. The aviation industry has been traditionally slow to upgrade its on-board amenities. Less than a third of passengers fly on planes that provide any seatback entertainment systems at all – let alone 3D.
"Aviation is a heavily regulated industry, and getting approval for new technology as meeting safety and security requirements means that it takes a long to put to market," says Walé Adepoju, chief analyst for consulting firm IMDC, which helps to develop aircraft-based media and communications.
Besides regulation, cost is another major stumbling block. Nintendo's display is 3.5 inches, while today's seatback TV screens are typically larger, such as the nearly 7-inch ones on most JetBlue aircraft and the 9-inch ones on Virgin America planes.
Nintendo's 3D technology costs about $10 per screen, according to an estimate by the consulting firm DisplaySearch. So it is reasonable to assume that airlines will have to invest more than $20 per seat to upgrade their in-flight entertainment systems to include 3D capability.
First class cabins will likely be the initial audience, following historical trends. For example, in 1964 when American Airlines installed "Astrovision" individual black-and-white TV monitors, they were available only to first class fliers.
Nintendo's 3DS console has won rave reviews. Deputy Editor of The Economist Tom Standage recently blogged about his tests of Nintendo's 3DS, calling the 3D effect "impressive" and "magical."
But glasses-free 3D technology, in general, isn't as breathtaking as watching Avatar in a movie house. "The glasses-free 3D technologies I saw several manufacturers showcase at the Consumer Electronics Show last month did not feel as immersive or offer as much depth perception as what you might find when watching a cinema with eyewear," said Mukul Krishna, global director for digital media at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan in San Antonio, Tex., in an interview with AOL Travel News.
No word yet on whether the quality of airplane movies will improve after the screens get better.