- 3D technology really does work
- comes with software for converting still images
- well-constructed hardware
- 3D viewing only accommodates one person at a time
- 3D viewing takes a little getting used to
Sharp announced its first device with a 3D display -- a notebook called the Actius RD3D -- in the US towards the end of 2003. The Actius RD3D has not shown up in the UK, and Sharp has no plans to launch it here. However, the company has introduced the same technology into a standalone 15in. LCD monitor which is available to UK buyers. It’s not cheap at £950 (ex. VAT; £1,116.25 inc. VAT), but, like the Actius RD3D, this monitor does offer 3D viewing without the need for those awful 3D glasses.
The Sharp LL-151-3D is nothing special to look at when it's first taken out of the box. The black casing is fairly attractive, but the design offers no really eye-catching features. A bank of buttons along the bottom of the casing allow you to power up, access monitor controls, adjust the volume and switch between 2D and 3D modes of operation. Almost all the connectors fit in upward-facing slots on the back of the monitor, making it easiest to access them with the monitor laying on its front. A snap-off cable cover does what it can to help keep the wiring -- which includes an audio input for the built-in speakers -- neat and tidy. The only connector that's not on the back of the device caters for a pair of headphones; this is located on left-hand side.
The LL-151-3D’s build is very solid. The base, while minimalist in looks, is sturdy and supports the screen well when it's being adjusted. The screen’s height can be adjusted by about 9cm, and it can be swivelled horizontally through about 90 degrees, and tilted vertically through about 35 degrees. This is pretty flexible, and is necessary for using the monitor in 3D mode. The only missing option is the ability to switch the screen from landscape into portrait orientation. You get two cables for delivering a video signal to the monitor's single DVI-I port, catering for digital or analogue video connections on your computer. We used the VGA-to-DVI connector to hook up our test notebook, an IBM ThinkPad X40, to the LL-151-3D. The monitor controls are easy to access, and there are some nice features such as presets -- and a user setting -- for red, green and blue ratios that affect the display's overall ambiance. The 3D effect is generated by activating the parallax barrier between the backlight and the TFT screen, causing each eye to receive different light. The parallax barrier is toggled on and off via a 3D button on the monitor; software written to take advantage of the technology can detect the parallax activation (via a built-in USB connection) and enable or disable 3D visualisation accordingly. You can check graphics card and driver compatibility here. Note that 3D visualisation only works at the monitor's native 1,024 by 768 pixel resolution. Note also that if you see predominantly through one eye -- for example, if you have a 'lazy eye' -- then this technology won't work for you.
Clearly it is the 3D performance that matters with this monitor -- that’s what you are paying the price premium for, after all. But before commenting on that, it's worth noting other aspects of the LL-151-3D’s performance. Standard 2D performance is pretty good: images are clear and sharp, and the various setting controls are easily accessible and intuitive to use. This makes it easy to adjust the screen to suit variable lighting conditions and personal preferences. We found that the various ways of manoeuvring the screen helped us achieve the best possible viewing angle. However, the screen does have a very reflective layer that makes it difficult to use successfully near an uncurtained window. The LL-151-3D’s speakers deliver somewhat tinny output -- even our ThinkPad X40's audio was preferable. Sound quality is better through headphones, but anyone used to a specialist speaker system will notice the difference. Sharp provided with a DVD containing demonstration material for the 3D display. This included a number of animated and live-action video sequences, and showed off the monitor’s capabilities rather well. The video sequences, in particular, were impressive. Sharp also provides software (Sharp Stereo Photo Editor) for preparing still images for viewing in 3D. You’ll need two standard 2D images taken from slightly different angles for this to work, and you may need to do some tweaking to get 3D images that work well. For some reason, this software refused to run on our ThinkPad X40, so we can’t comment on its utility. However, we've seen it running before on one of the few RD3D laptops to visit the UK, and can confirm that it works. Using the monitor effectively for 3D viewing takes a little practice. You need to position both it and yourself accurately, and horizontal or vertical movement outside the optimum viewing area will result in loss of the 3D image. If your eyes aren’t getting the separate images correctly, your brain can’t do its job of interpreting them as a single 3D picture. Once you're set up and comfortable, you become used to restricting your movement -- although you'll be amazed by how much you tend to move around in everyday circumstances. We were impressed by Sharp’s technology. When you get into the right position, the results are amazing. Sharp's demo of people walking through St Mark’s Square in Venice was particularly impressive, as it shows real-world activity rather than computer-generated material. But getting into, and then staying in, the right position, takes some effort. Also, because of the way the technology works, only one person can get the full 3D experience: there isn't room for two heads within the viewing envelope. Sharp’s target markets for the LL-151-3D include surgeons, architects and gamers. The former groups may well find a place for the monitor, but we wonder whether gamers will have the patience to work with it -- or, indeed, be able to justify its cost. Nonetheless, this is an innovative and impressive effort.