Emerging and Converging 3-D Technologies


By Joshua J. Romero

First Published February 2008

From 3-D scanners and printers to 3-D glasses for movies and TV, the next big things in tech gadgets may be the third dimension

Jump to categories of 3-D technologies

You may not realize it yet, but you’re trapped in Flatland. Take a look around at the most cutting-edge displays you can find, and you’ll discover their common limitation—flat screens that compress three-dimensional content into a two-dimensional abstraction. Manufacturers actually tout the slimness of high-definition televisions, cellphones, and MP3 players, as if their lack of depth were an asset rather than a limitation. No matter how many pixels we manage to cram into our digital photos or videos, they all end up squeezed together on the x-y plane. When it comes to dealing with all three dimensions, our consumer technology has lagged far behind our science fiction: we don’t have Princess Leia’s 3-D holographic video technology to send SOS messages, and we’re far from the culinary ease of the Enterprise’s replicators, which rapidly manufacture any meal imaginable, complete with tableware. But engineers in a variety of fields are working to make real 3-D devices for the real world. Most of their progress appears only in prototypes or products for specialized industries, but some of the technology has begun to trickle down to a handful of consumer 3-D devices actually on the market. For less than US $10 000, it’s now actually possible to capture a full 3-D image with a 3-D laser scanner, display it in your home on a 3-D–capable television, and print out a physical model with a 3-D printer.

Check back on this page to stay updated on all of IEEE Spectrum’s coverage as 3-D technology matures. In case you missed it, here’s a summary of where things stand now:

As movie theaters shift from film to digital projectors, Hollywood studios are giving 3-D another shot; Dreamworks announced that it will shoot all its films in 3-D by 2009. Home electronics manufacturers are looking to capitalize on the new content, with Samsung and Mitsubishi already including stereoscopic 3-D capability in many of their TVs and smaller companies like TDVision and Vusix providing portable visors with built-in displays. As HD video becomes the new standard, stereoscopic 3-D may become the next big format for gadget freaks.

What if you don’t want to wear glasses? Holographic and volumetric displays, while not yet commercially viable, go beyond the simple trick of stereoscopy for real three-dimensional images. And don’t forget laser scanning and rapid manufacturing technologies, which are making their way from medical and industrial applications to hobbyists around the world. Communities of enthusiasts have sprouted up that will teach you to build a completely open-source 3-D printer or make your own 3-D scanner with a laser pointer and webcam.

The road to 3-D electronics has already been long and bumpy; and although there’s no end in site, Spectrum plans to be along for the ride.

3-D Displays

Is 3-D television the next HD?
With 3-D capable DLP and plasma screens, manufacturers bring strereoscopic 3-D displays to the living room
February 2008

Mitsubishi's 3-D Blue-ray goggles
August 2007

Related Podcast: 3-D Displays
download .zip or .mp3
July 2005


3-D Visors/Glasses

In-Your-Face Goggles
November 2007

arIs It Live or Is It AR?
By blending digital creations with our view of the world, augmented reality is set to transform the way we entertain and educate ourselves
August 2007


3-D Cinema

Digital Cinema:
Another Dimension

from Bits on the Big Screen

December 2006

digitalThe Sky is Falling
Chicken Little release heralds the end of movies on film
November 2005

Related Podcast: Projecting Chicken Little in 3-D
Download .zip or .mp3
November 2005




Volumetric Displays

3deep3 Deep
New displays render images you can almost reach out and touch
April 2005


Holographic Tech

Escape From Flatland
Holografika's 3-D display is so good that if you move your head, you can see around a corner
December 2006

Related Letter: Viewed in the Round

holokitDo-it Yourself-3-D
The Holokit lets you make your own holograms
November 2005


3-D Scanners

fetalThree-Dimensional Medical Imaging Could Improve Doctors' Ability to Diagnose Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Laser scanners could help diagnose a birth defect that's difficult to detect
November 2007

Sizing Us Up
New 3-D body scanners are reshaping clothing, car seats, and more
April 2004


3-D Printing

skinSynthetic Skin
Can robots, computers, and chip-making techniques save tissue engineering and bring internal organs to market?