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Is this what’s needed to bring augmented reality to the home office?
Matthew S. Smith writes IEEE Spectrum's Gizmo column and is a freelance consumer-tech journalist. An avid gamer, he is a former staff editor at Digital Trends and is particularly fond of wearables, e-bikes, all things smartphone, and CES, which he has attended every year since 2009.
Acer, the world’s fifth largest PC brand, wants to take the growing AR/VR market by the horns with its SpatialLabs glasses-free stereoscopic 3D displays.
First teased in 2021 in a variant of Acer’s ConceptD 7 laptop, the technology expands this summer in a pair of portable monitors, the SpatialLabs View and View Pro, and select Acer Predator gaming laptops. The launch is paired with AI-powered software for converting existing 2D content into stereoscopic 3D.
“We see a convergence of virtual and reality,” Jane Hsu, Head of Business Development for SpatialLabs, said in an interview. “It’s a different form for users to start interacting with a virtual world.”Glasses-free stereoscopic 3D isn’t new.
Evolutionary, not revolutionary
The technology has powered several niche products and prototypes, such as Sony’s Spatial Reality Display, but its most famous debut was Nintendo’s 3DS portable game console.
The 3DS filtered two images through a display layer called a parallax barrier. This barrier controlled the angle an image reached the user’s eyes to create the 3D effect. Because angle was important, the 3DS used cameras that detected the user’s eyes and adjusted the image to compensate for viewing angle.
“The PC in 2022 is encountering a lot of problems.”
—Jerry Kao, Acer
Acer’s technology is similar. It also displays two images which are filtered through an “optical layer” and has cameras to track and compensate for the user’s viewing angle.
So, what’s different this time?
“The fundamental difference is that the computing power is way different, and resolution is way different,” said Hsu. “The Nintendo, that was 800 x 240. In a sense, the technology is the same, but over time it has improved for a crystal-clear, high-resolution experience.”
Resolution is important to this form of glasses-free 3D. Because it renders two images to create the 3D effect, the resolution of the display is cut in half on the horizontal axis when 3D is on. The 3DS cut resolution to 400 x 240 when 3D was on and blurry visuals were a common complaint among critics.
Acer’s SpatialLabs laptops and displays are a big improvement. Each provides native 4K (3,840 x 2,160 resolution) in 2D. That’s forty-three times the pixel count of Nintendo’s 3DS. Turning 3D on shaves resolution to 1,920 x 2,160, which, while lower, is still sharper than a 27-inch 4K monitor.
Hsu says advancements in AI compute are also key. Partners like Nvidia and Intel can now accelerate AI in hardware, a feature that wasn’t common a half decade ago.
Acer has harnessed this for SpatialLabs GO, a software utility that can convert full-screen content from 2D to stereoscopic 3D. This should make SpatialLabs useful with a wider range of content. It can also help creators generate content for use in stereoscopic 3D by importing and converting existing assets.
A new angle on augmented reality
Acer was a lead partner in Microsoft’s push for mixed reality headsets. They were a flop, and their failure taught Acer hard lessons about how people approach AR/VR hardware in the real world.
“Acer spent a lot bringing VR headsets to market, but ... it was not very successful,” Acer Co-COO Jerry Kao said in an interview. “There were limitations. It’s not comfortable, or it’s expensive, and you need space around you. So, we wanted to address this.”
SpatialLabs is a complementary alternative. Creators can use SpaitalLabs to achieve a 3D effect in their home office without pushing aside furniture. The Acer View Pro, meant for commercial use, may have a future in retail displays, a use that headsets can't address.
The View Pro display is built for use in kiosks and retail displays.Acer
Most of the SpatialLabs product line, including the ConceptD 7 laptop and View displays, lean towards creative professionals using programs like Maya and Blender to create 3D content. Acer says its software suite has “out-of-the-box support for all major file formats.” It recently added support for Datasmith, a plugin used to import assets to Epic’s Unreal Engine.
But the technology is also coming to Predator gaming laptops for glasses-free stereoscopic 3D in select titles like Forza Horizon 5 and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Gaming seems a natural fit given its history in Nintendo’s handheld, and Hsu thinks it will help attract mainstream attention.
“When the Turn 10 team [developer of the Forza Horizon series] saw what we had done with Forza Horizon 5, they were like, ‘wow, this is so great!’” said Hsu. “They said, you know what? I think I can build the scene with even more depth. And this is just the beginning.”
Does glasses-free 3D really stand a chance?
SpatialLabs brings gains in resolution and performance, but it’s far from a surefire hit. Acer is the only PC maker currently pursuing the hardware. Going it alone won’t be easy.
“While the tech seems quite appealing, it will likely remain a niche product that’ll be used in rare instances by designers or developers rather than the average consumer,” Jitesh Ubrani, Research Manager at IDC, said in an email. He thinks Acer could find it difficult to deliver on price and availability, “both of which are tough to do for such a fringe technology.”
I asked Hsu how Acer will solve these issues. “In a way he’s right, it is difficult. We’re building this ourselves,” said Hsu. “But also, the hardware is more mature.”
Kao chimed in to say SpatialLabs will stand out in what might be weak year for home computers. “The PC in 2022 is encountering a lot of problems,” Kao said. He sees that as a motivation, not a barrier, for novel technology on the PC.
“Intel, Google, Microsoft, and a lot of people, they have technology,” said Kao. “But they don’t know how to leverage that technology in the product and deliver the experience to specific people. That is what Acer is good at.”
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Liberty Lifter X-plane will leverage ground effect
Arguably, the primary job of any military organization is moving enormous amounts of stuff from one place to another as quickly and efficiently as possible. Some of that stuff is weaponry, but the vast majority are things that support that weaponry—fuel, spare parts, personnel, and so on. At the moment, the U.S. military has two options when it comes to transporting large amounts of payload. Option one is boats (a sealift), which are efficient, but also slow and require ports. Option two is planes (an airlift), which are faster by a couple of orders of magnitude, but also expensive and require runways.
To solve this, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to combine traditional sealift and airlift with the Liberty Lifter program, which aims to “design, build, and flight test an affordable, innovative, and disruptive seaplane” that “enables efficient theater-range transport of large payloads at speeds far exceeding existing sea lift platforms.”
DARPA is asking for a design like this to take advantage of ground effect, which occurs when an aircraft’s wing deflects air downward and proximity to the ground generates a cushioning effect due to the compression of air between the bottom of the wing and the ground. This boosts lift and lowers drag to yield a substantial overall improvement in efficiency. Ground effect works on both water and land, but you can take advantage of it for only so long on land before your aircraft runs into something. Which is why oceans are the ideal place for these aircraft—or ships, depending on your perspective.
During the late 1980s, the Soviets (and later the Russians) leveraged ground effect in the design of a handful of awesomely bizarre ships and aircraft. There’s the VVA-14, which was also an airplane, along with the vehicle shown in DARPA’s video above, the Lun-class ekranoplan, which operated until the late 1990s. The video clip really does not do this thing justice, so here’s a better picture, taken a couple of years ago:
The Lun (only one was ever made) had a wingspan of 44 meters and was powered by eight turbojet engines. It flew about 4 meters above the water at speeds of up to 550 kilometers per hour, and could transport almost 100,000 kilograms of cargo for 2,000 km. It was based on an earlier, even larger prototype (the largest aircraft in the world at the time) that the CIA spotted in satellite images in 1967 and which seems to have seriously freaked them out. It was nicknamed the Caspian Sea Monster, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that the West understood what it was and how it worked.
In the mid 1990s, DARPA itself took a serious look at a stupendously large ground-effect vehicle of its own, the Aerocon Dash 1.6 wingship. The concept image below is of a 4.5-million-kg vehicle, 175 meters long with a 100-meter wingspan, powered by 20 (!) jet engines:
With a range of almost 20,000 km at over 700 km/h, the wingship could have carried 3,000 passengers or 1.4 million kg of cargo. By 1994, though, DARPA had decided that the potential billion-dollar project to build a wingship like this was too risky, and canceled the whole thing.
Less than 10 years later, Boeing’s Phantom Works started exploring an enormous ground-effect aircraft, the Pelican Ultra Large Transport Aircraft. The Pelican would have been even larger than the Aerocon wingship, with a wingspan of 152 meters and a payload of 1.2 million kg—that’s about 178 shipping containers’ worth. Unlike the wingship, the Pelican would take advantage of ground effect to boost efficiency only in transit above water, but would otherwise use runways like a normal aircraft and be able to reach flight altitudes of 7,500 meters. Operating as a traditional aircraft and with an optimal payload, the Pelican would have a range of about 12,000 km. In ground effect, however, the range would have increased to 18,500 km, illustrating the appeal of designs like these. But Boeing dropped the project in 2005 to focus on lower cost, less risky options.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t at least briefly mention two other massive aircraft: the H-4 Hercules, the cargo seaplane built by Hughes Aircraft Co. in the 1940s, and the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft, which features a twin-fuselage configuration that DARPA seems to be favoring in its concept video for some reason.
From the sound of DARPA’s announcement, they’re looking for something a bit more like the Pelican than the Aerocon Dash or the Lun. DARPA wants the Liberty Lifter to be able to sustain flight out of ground effect if necessary, although it’s expected to spend most of its time over water for efficiency. It won’t use runways on land at all, though, and should be able to stay out on the water for 4 to 6 weeks at a time, operating even in rough seas—a significant challenge for ground-effect aircraft.
DARPA is looking for an operational range of 7,500 km, with a maximum payload of at least 90,000 kg, including the ability to launch and recover amphibious vehicles. The hardest thing DARPA is asking for could be that, unlike most other X-planes, the Liberty Lifter should incorporate a “low cost design and construction philosophy” inspired by the mass-produced Liberty ships of World War II.
With US $15 million to be awarded to up to two Liberty Lifter concepts, DARPA is hoping that at least one of those concepts will pass a system-level critical design review in 2025. If everything goes well after that, the first flight of a full-scale prototype vehicle could happen as early as 2027.
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